The Global Grapevine

Sociologist Gary Alan Fine explains what rumors tell us about America's relationship to globalization


Gary Alan Fine, a sometime Reason contributor, has studied the sociology of rumor for decades. In his new book, The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Fine and co-author Bill Ellis, a professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Penn State, dig into the rumors that both surround and shape America's anxious entry into an interconnected global world.

Fine and Ellis explore the meanings of a representative set of such rumors, including rumors of wicked immigrants who simultaneously enjoy secret tax breaks and form hyperviolent gangs; rumors of terror threats masterminded by Arabs, Israelis, and the U.S. government itself; rumors of tourists adopting pet rats and contracting AIDS from malign foreigners; and rumors of international trade that brings disease and death to hapless Americans.

In doing so, they help us understand a nation that remains, as ever, riven by fears regarding an invading Other, whether metaphorical or actual. It is also, interestingly, a nation that seems prepared to take seriously the worst rumors about its own government. Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Fine, currently John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, by phone this week.

Reason: What do you find interesting about rumors as a topic of sociological study?

Gary Alan Fine: I have been studying rumors now for 35 years. I published my first book on rumor, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay, in 1976. In 2001 I published a book with Patricia A. Turner, Whispers on The Color Line: Rumor and Race in America. We attempted to analyze rumors told in white communities and in African-American communities and the ways some of the rumors were mirror images of each other, and the ways these separate pools of knowledge affected our race relations and made it so difficult for blacks and whites to get together. Very often they didn't know what the other racial group believed.

I decided the next study of rumors I wanted to do was about rumors that deal with what we call global politics or international politics. Bill Ellis and my book speaks to that concern for the areas mentioned in the title: terror, immigration, and international trade. We also talk about tourism, and fears of organ theft.

One of the things we emphasize is that rumors do provide access to what people believe, and the beliefs they may keep hidden, private, because often these beliefs are hostile to a group. But rumors connect belief to some event, an event that may or may not have happened. But if you can point to an event and say, see, these Mexican undocumented workers are coming over and are engaging in these crimes, it is different than saying: "I believe that immigration is bad." It is pointing to events, imagined or not, and therefore you are justified in making the claim. This became important. We talk about rumors as a canary in the coal mine. It allows us to see concerns that people have they might not often be willing to express in a more direct way.

Many rumors, particularly ones we talk about, are issues of public concern. When you spread those rumors, you are implicitly making a claim about the way the world operates either for good or for ill. We talk about what we call the "politics of plausibility" and the "politics of credibility." The first refers to whether the substance of a specific claim makes sense, is feasible, plausible, might it have happened. Some claims people can make no one would take seriously, and those stand outside plausibility.

But other examples we give are of rumors that, regarding 9/11, that the Arab-American community was aware of the attack before it happened, or the Jewish-American community was aware of the attack before, or the U.S. government was aware of the attack before it occurred. Large groups of citizens in each case believe that that could have happened—that's the politics of plausibility. The politics of credibility has to do with who told the story, and is that source someone you judge as having reason, likelihood to know what they are talking about?

Reason: It seemed interesting that unlike the rumors regarding immigration, a lot of 9/11 rumors cast doubt and fear not on underdogs or outsiders, but on our own government and media elites.

Fine: Those of us sympathetic to libertarianism know there has been a lengthy tradition, and I think a healthy tradition, of suspicion of state power, suspicion of governments. There has been an argument and let me describe it as plausible, that over the course of the 20th century with the rise of the megastate that there is even more concern with state power and thus rumors about what the state might do, what it might know, how it might mislead the public, have become increasingly prevalent.

People often speak of Watergate as changing the American public's attitudes toward government. I think there is some truth to that, though there were certainly plenty of conspiratorial beliefs prior to that. But Watergate institutionalized the legitimacy of being suspicious of government.

Reason: What do we know authoritatively about how widespread serious suspicion of the government regarding 9/11 is?

Fine: We do have a number of surveys, which are only as good as the particular question asked. If you ask someone, "Do you think it's possible the U.S. government knew of the attacks on the World Trade Center?" you tend to get a fairly high proportion—I think 25-30 percent—who think it is possible. Does that mean government was behind it? As we get to more specific claims [about what did happen], the number who would admit that decreases. Certainly the so-called "9/11 Truth" movement is alive and active, just as rumors about President Kennedy's assassination were very active for 15 years after he was killed.

Pearl Harbor is the historical precedent that is most similar. There was a very active non-intervention opposition, often called isolationists, and they were powerful and held much sway to the annoyance of the Roosevelt administration. When Pearl Harbor happened some people thought—who benefits from this attack? The rumor was that the Roosevelt administration benefited, because it allowed them to intervene in the war in Europe [like they wanted]. Thus there were stories that the administration knew about or even provoked the attack. Historians I think would largely be in agreement that the Roosevelt administration was not behind the Pearl Harbor attack, but that they probably knew more than what they admitted on December 7, 1941.

Reason: You and Ellis are deliberately not out in this book to debunk rumors, per se.

Fine: First thing readers have to know is that rumors are sometimes true; they are not always false, and further the truth of rumors may be unavailable to researchers. So if you go on a website like Snopes.com—I go on it a lot, I admire it, but what they are interested in is saying, "OK, this story is definitely true or definitely false, or we don't know in this case"—they want to be the honest broker, but how do they know? For example, talking about conspiracy theories, conspiracy rumors: The fact that someone is trying to mislead you is part of the conspiracy. There's no way to defend a claim that some conspiracy is false if you are committed to that conspiracy, so we try to avoid a definitive answer, though there are instances where we were prepared to say there's very, very strong evidence that this particular story is not true.

Reason: Does the plethora of un-gatekeepered sources of information now make people more credulous about bogus stories?

Fine: In the 21st century there are many more streams of knowledge, thus it's important for any consumer of knowledge to make judgments about where information came from, and how credible the source is. Sometimes because a story is very entertaining, people become a little casual about judging its truth. There are stories we call "too good to be false"—such great stories that we want to believe them and we look the other way.

With regard to the oil spill, we have a narrative that has developed, but most of us in the public don't know whether the narrative is accurate. We are getting information from sets of interested parties. They may be government, may be officials of British Petroleum, may be environmentalists, local politicians and fisherman, or whoever, and they all have their perspective and are all presenting stories they believe are plausible and they believe serve their purpose in some way. I don't mean that in a negative sense—they feel they are doing good by spreading a story but it certainly doesn't mean all the stories are correct, and they couldn't be because often they contradict each other. We have the responsibility of judging. [In pre-media ages] when we received most information from individual contacts, we could judge who that person telling us a story is, where they are likely to have gotten the story. Today on the Internet you often don't know.

We will rely on certain kinds of gatekeepers, and those gatekeepers can be different and that's not inappropriate. For some Americans Reason will be a suitable gatekeeper and we say, "In the past we felt Reason has been trustworthy so we continue to trust them." Others on the conservative side may say the same about the Weekly Standard, or a liberal about The Nation. In terms of our beliefs, our experiences, there are certain groups we believe are trustworthy. But we should not rely on any one gatekeeper. We should see if a consensus is developing—but be aware that consensus doesn't always mean truth.

There is a conventional knowledge that journalist run in packs. It's an imperfect system, but if we can choose our gatekeepers then look at other gatekeepers it's likely to be more successful, and if we question those beliefs that seem too perfect, seem to make too much sense [given our pre-existing worldview]. That BP must be the bad guys—let's question that. Where did that come from? Or that the Muslim fundamentalists are the bad guys or that the U.S. government is the bad guy. We should question easy truth claims.

Reason: What do we learn about American attitudes toward immigration from rumors you studied?

Fine: We analyze American feelings about immigration in historical context. When we think about the concerns of people in Arizona today, they are not that different from concerns Americans on the East Coast had 100 years ago, just about different groups of people. But the same fears—of crime, of disease. We take it back to [the Irish immigrant] Typhoid Mary. By the 1980s that fear became one of AIDS; early on—though there was not a lot of evidence—we believed Haitians were one of the main vectors of HIV. More recently, what we now call H1N1 was spoken of as Mexican flu.

A hundred years ago people believed women were being drugged and sold into prostitution, where? At ice cream parlors. Why? Today it's hard to imagine that happening at Baskin Robbins but back at the turn of the last century ice cream was a relatively unknown exotic treat brought to us and spread by mostly Italian and Eastern European immigrants. The fear was ice-cream parlor owners put something into the sundaes of young women, take them to the back room, and sell them into prostitution. We used to call that white slavery. It hasn't disappeared; it's now called sexual slavery. With rumors about immigrants we see many of the same themes and concerns back 150 years. There were the "gangs of New York"—Irish gangs, Italian gangs, the Mafia, Murder Inc. And now we have the Mexican gangs, Salvadoran gangs.

Now it is the children and great grandchildren of those originally condemned as gang members, now they are the ones spreading stories about Mexican and Central American gangs. Of course gangs exist, so we are very careful not to deny any truth [to rumors about them], but the more gothic example of gangs and the ways gangs take over small town life throughout America, are very overblown.

Reason: You write of an amazing sounding anti-Catholic book, the second bestselling work by an American in the 19th century, Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. Has anything replicated this sort of anti-Catholic rumor and fear in modern times?

Fine: In some ways these things never disappear. Time just had a cover story about how being Pope means never having to say you're sorry. There is a belief that many Catholic priests are involved in sexual abuse of children, and again there are clearly some instances of abuse, but it's hard to know how much use the term "sexual abuse" is. Any kind of sexual abuse is awful, but many times the image is like in that Maria Monk book, of people in sexual slavery, locked in dungeons, and raped. While fondling is certainly wrong, the terms "sexual abuse" by priests raises far more gothic images and people start to believe that sort of thing is far more common in the Catholic Church than it is or was. But from the 19th century to now you see the same themes about priests, these secret groups of all men who are removed from normal social activity, don't have wives, don't have families, it can lead to any kind of belief, whether enslaving young woman or rampantly abusing young boys.

Reason: You seem to imply regarding immigration, and all the tensions of globalization whose rumors you study, that the problems and fears are not apt to go away; just the specific ways we express them through rumors might shift.

Fine: For those of us who have a libertarian orientation, the question of what constitutes a nation is very difficult. On some levels we want to believe and do believe in open borders; people shouldn't be constrained by a state system. On the other hand we also recognize that there are communities which set up laws, have tax structures, and we need an orderly process of determining who is inside and outside.

So this issue of boundaries is not going to disappear. We'll never say, "We have all the people we need now, let's close the border and we will live as ourselves for generations, forever." What we will see and are already starting to see is while we still have Latino immigrants we have more African immigrants. In 30 years we may find the same people who are Hispanic Americans saying, "We have too many Africans coming into the country and we have to do something about it." History reminds us problems are rarely solved permanently.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).