RIT receives National Science Foundation grant to model rumor propagation

September 06, 2005

Rumors and their often dangerous aftereffects have long been major themes in pop culture, including an entire movie devoted to the spread of one rumor, Gossip. However, little scientific data is available on the importance of rumors in social interaction.

Now, a new study by researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology will attempt to model how rumors spread in the context of social networks and how they ultimately affect individuals and groups in society. The project, led by Nicholas DiFonzo, associate professor of psychology, will be the first major attempt to meld psychological and social data with mathematical modeling of rumor propagation.

"Rumors play an important part in a variety of human attitudes and actions, yet we know little about how they proliferate, spread and die over time and space," DiFonzo says. "In addition, researchers in the social and mathematical sciences have rarely collaborated to combine their knowledge in the field, making major breakthroughs more difficult."

DiFonzo and his team will attempt to use two diverse methodologies combining the expertise of both mathematicians and psychologists. First, rumor selection and belief will be mathematically modeled in spatial networks and will use insights and data gained from empirical research.

Second, laboratory experiments will be conducted in which groups of networked participants select and discuss rumors via e-mail. Both modeling and experiments will investigate how social space, group membership and network homogeneity affect group-level rumor selection and belief over time. Finally, an exploratory arm of the study will pilot a Website for collection of field data related to propagation mechanisms and will search for archival repositories of rumor.

"Like infectious diseases, many rumors engender mistrust, suspicion and conflict between people and groups, often causing societal chaos," DiFonzo adds. "Through better understanding of how rumors grow and spread we hope to decrease their negative impact and often damaging consequences."

The project is funded by a $749,546 grant, recently awarded to DiFonzo by the National Science Foundation's Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences.

Rochester Institute of Technology

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