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Gossip and rumor are important informal modes of communication, influencing public opinion and individual actions. But, the distinction between information and falsehood can be difficult to see.

Is the world ending?

Shortly before the year 2000, a major topic of conversation between people in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, was when the world was going to end. Some said that this would happen when computers reached Hagen; Jesus would come back and would reign over the world. This was a version of the Y2K computer problem, the anticipated chaos that might happen when computers had to switch over to the year 2000 (many computer programs used only the final two digits for a year instead of the full four) (see Stewart and Strathern 1997, 2000). Rumors of this kind reached fever pitch, and then died down after January 1, 2000, arrived and the world continued to exist. Gossip persisted until other concerns took center stage. An initial stimulus was provided by pastors in the local Pentecostal-style churches, who declared that with impending end times everyone needed to get baptized.

Rumor and gossip as categories of action

Gossip is a human universal that shifts its shape and functions from one context to another. In our book on witchcraft and gossip we highlighted connections between the genesis of accusations of witchcraft within communities and the circulation of gossip and rumor (Stewart and Strathern 2004). We were dealing with oral contexts, word of mouth transmissions, hidden and ambiguous innuendoes that received an array of interpretations filtering into abrupt social repercussions, from small beginnings. The message was about process and its manifold turns, as well as its cognitive underpinnings. Here we want to draw attention to a further turn, the extensive and intensive transformations of gossip and rumor as they enter the literate and digital worlds.

Humans like to tell stories, and gossip is an attempt to put pieces together to give shape to a story. The intentionality behind it is not always clear. Is it simply to make sense of things?

Rumor and gossip make up a pair of practices, closely intertwined, but belonging to different social contexts. Rumor can arise among persons who do not necessarily know one another but all become vehicles for the transmission of a specific piece of highly charged information. Gossip, however, depends on relationships, on who is talking to whom, on an interpersonal basis. The origin of the word “gossip” indicates this point, since it is derived from “godsibb” [Old English]: a friend or relative in God, a person with whom one converses, more broadly applied to a set of people who attend and witness a baptism and talk to one another. Its pejorative tone comes from the idea that talk can be idle or unsupported by evidence. Rumor, by contrast, from its Latin source simply means “noise”: the noise created by spreading waves of talk. As products of collective interaction, rumor and gossip are not necessarily malicious. They do lend themselves, however, to harmful purposes, depending on people’s intentions and vulnerabilities.

Oral and literate forms

One of the transformations of rumor, much commented on, goes under the rubric of fake news, carrying the implication of deliberate attempts to mass-manufacture false chunks of information to influence the reactions and opinions of its listeners, readers, or viewers (see for example, New Yorker 2018). Fake news is like unsubstantiated rumor, with the rider that its fabricators deliberately intend to deceive, whereas rumor may simply be grasping at fragments of information and trying to give these a particular interpretation. Such interpretive efforts emerge from and disappear back into a great passive repertoire of cultural themes that make up profiles of ideology and affect. When this repertoire is contained within the oral world of communication, its reproduction is constrained by face-to-face pathways. When it enters the literate and imagistic medium, it gains an exponential capacity for its own multiplication, losing some of the immediacy that gives it verisimilitude, but gaining in scale. The transition may be able to play on a tendency, derived from the history of writing and its association with authority, to lend more credence to literate rather than to oral sources. But the trick for literate forms of rumor (and gossip) is that they should mimic the oral form, preserving the informality and ambiguity while presenting things, rhetorically, in “black and white.” Relevant also is the question of circulation, intended or otherwise. Who gets to participate in the circulation?

Social media

Increasingly, in many areas globally, these themes appear clearly in the operation of locality-based Facebook pages centered round communities. For example, the use of Facebook has increased in village contexts in Scotland (where we have carried out long-term research and spend part of our time each year). While we do not belong to any of the networks that are created through these pages, we have come across them when they transform back into the oral sphere with people referring to them in conversations in stores such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and hairdressing salons where customers have to spend time on a lengthy process of professional care and engage in conversation with one another and the hair specialists. Gossip ensues in classic fashion, but it often takes off from a reference to something on the local Facebook page. “Did you see this on Facebook?” they ask. Almost invariably the “this” is about some piece of implicit or explicit negative information that the participants wish to advertise. The oral and literate components feed off one another. New bits of comment and detail emerge on the Facebook source, and the same with the oral comments. The result is a seamless combination of the oral and the textual experience, in which they reinforce each other. It could, of course, be otherwise. A textual source could negate the oral, but the point here is the same as with purely oral gossip, in which the shared aim is to reinforce a rumor and to structure networks of response around its affirmation. These are subjunctive moments turned into “factual” claims that suit people’s inclinations and interests.

An oil painting depicting a crowd of human faces.

Image description: An oil painting by Francisco de Goya in dark brown tones depicting a crowd of human faces, eyes wide, and mouths open as if talking to one another.
Caption: “Aquelarre or the Witches’ Sabbath (detail),” 1820–1823, Oil on wall, P00761. Francisco de Goya (1746–1828). Museo Del Prado-Pintura, Madrid, Spain. Alamy/ P2N15B

A comparison with divination

We may compare this process with the process of divination. Putting something on Facebook reifies and objectifies it, not making it true but making it “look” true. With divination, a further test is set up. An oral statement or a suspicion is translated into a material medium that encompasses an experiment in which an appeal is made to a hierarchy of “truth-making,” often with regard to an issue of culpability for actions (Stewart and Strathern 2004). Thus, gossip and rumor about witchcraft can be referred to a divinatory test. Facebook does not quite operate in this way. It supports oral information, but stops short of the level of divination (although strings of comments can be tallied to validate a post in one way or another as “credible” or not). The same with social media generally. And for gossip to flourish unchecked, it is also important that issues are not settled but remain open, to be played on or discarded as the participants decide.

As the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea (among whom we have carried out research for decades and where we are situated as we write this essay in January, 2020) put it, gossip is done at the back of people (ik mburlung oronga nitimin); the target does not hear it directly, so cannot engage with it. It is also malicious and ill-founded, but hard to refute, circulating in the shadows, clinging to them while mimicking truth. Of course, there is a different kind of talk that the Hageners categorize, called “little pieces of talk” (ik ndöp), broken off, as it were, from larger pieces of context and harmless in its effects, creating sociality rather than destroying it. A good example from our fieldwork in Papua New Guinea is found in the customary forms of greeting between people who meet on a shared pathway. These greetings begin with “you come” and end with “you go.” A handshake reinforces the expression of mutual recognition. Real snippets of information are also transmitted in these contexts, constituting the “pieces” of talk.

More serious matters are often broached in elliptical ways because talk can lead to violence. Verbal imputations of sorcery attacks often follow a death in Hagen, particularly when a prominent person has died. In one ongoing case known to us gossip arose that the death had been caused by an enemy group’s sorcery. This led to overt hostilities between the clan groups, whose members were already involved in a bitter struggle over the ownership of a valuable coffee plantation.

Gossip in its malicious sense avoids verification. Indeed, in some instances it is beyond any verification, but fits prejudices. In all this, local social media circuits can both amplify the spread of gossip and preserve its ambiguity because they simply represent a range of opinions. It does not provide any divinatory powers other than by the semblance of its literate form.

Language and trust

On a broader front, the proliferation of media sources in today’s world provides a series of informational challenges for which we do not have a trustworthy means of divination. Who, then, will be the oracle for the world in an era of troubling issues, such as those that are about global climate change? Perhaps, one needs a structure like that of the chief’s oracle among the Azande people of Sudan, as described by Evans-Pritchard (1937). Other oracles might give variant results, and so they had to be corrected against the verdicts given by the chief’s oracle. That, of course, depended on the trust placed in the chief.

The trick for literate forms of rumor (and gossip) is that they should mimic the oral form, preserving the informality and ambiguity while presenting things, rhetorically, in “black and white.”

The question of trust belongs to a wider class of matters centering on language and intentionality. Language enables people either to express “truth” more effectively or to lie about it. The ambiguity that results from this dual potentiality leads to empirical fact-checking actions, including divination, but also feeds into gossip. Why, then, do people gossip? Is gossip rumor in search of a truth? Humans like to tell stories, and gossip is an attempt to put pieces together to give shape to a story. The intentionality behind it is not always clear. Is it simply to make sense of things?

In the community contexts where gossip takes place, the intention is to influence situations in contexts of power but without explicit indications of this. Often, the intentions are ambiguous, and unintended results surpass what may have originally been intended. Further, individuals interpret statements differently, especially when the statements are free-floating, and attitudes are differentially engaged. Herein lies the source of the power of gossip and its dangers, shown clearly in the processual history of witchcraft accusations and trials seen historically in a variety of places. Witchcraft accusations in Europe in historical times often stemmed from clandestine remarks about how a person looked at another, or with rumors that they were seen with a strange animal, interpreted as a witch’s familiar. Language itself facilitates this process, in which a story becomes the “truth,” but particular languages offer their own safeguards through the built-in phenomenon of what linguists call evidentials—particles that require speakers to indicate whether they are reporting something they themselves have witnessed or they are repeating what others have said, and thus gossip.

This built-in grammatical presence of evidentials is found in numbers of vernacular languages in Papua New Guinea. Even where it is not found, speakers must indicate when they are reporting what someone else said or said that others had said.

Gossiping is a thing that humans do. Spreading information is valuable but the distinction between what is information and what is disinformation often lies murkily in the shadows.

Pamela J. Stewart (Strathern) is senior research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Andrew J. Strathern is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Cite as: Stewart (Strathern), Pamela J. and Andrew J. Strathern. 2020. “Gossip—A Thing Humans Do.” Anthropology News website, February 20, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1351