OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Epidemics and rumors

From a horse ride in the US in the 18th century to a chain of cell phone calls in the 21st century: How information spreads? What can we learn from these cases beyond the technology?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Written by

How information spreads? In some cases, information (true as well as false) can spread fast. What are the mechanisms and factors at play?

One famous story is the story of Paul Revere (told in particular by Gladwell in the  Tipping Point) riding all night (on April 18, 1775) to announce the coming British invasion. Paul Revere set out to warn the areas north and south of Boston, knocking on doors delivering the message that the British were coming to seize a weapon's stash. He delivered his message with fervor and was believed and listened to. The local militia got ready to respond when the British soldiers arrived in the morning. On that same night, William Dawes, also set out on the same urgent errand to warn the towns west of Boston. Yet no one really listened to him...

Why the difference? According to Gladwell, Revere was a "connector" who had a huge network and was trusted, while Dawes did not have a network.
In the context of this challenge, the question is then: how do we find the connectors who are trusted and can spread the word?

Fast forward to the night of January 18th,2010,  only 6 days after Haiti's earthquake. In Ghara, 5000 miles away from Haiti, Ghanaians started sharing the "news" that there was an imminent earthquake. The information moved from region to region through mobile phone calls and text messages, people urging friends and families to leave their home. Thousands of people took their possessions, left their homes, gathered in public spaces... By early morning, it became clear that no earthquake happened or was planned to happen soon. Various government agencies agencies gave interviews and urged the citizens to go back to their homes and normal lives. 
According to  Jenna Burrell at Berkeley, more than the technology, what mattered was the rumor itself. Indeed, the phone networks quickly became overwhelmed with the calls and text messaging but the rumor kept spreading. What played a role was the people who were central in "networks" and made sure to pass the information to all the people in their own network. People also mentioned several reasons why they believed this piece of information might be true: some elements - references to official institutions - mattered too.

Again in this case, connectors and networks are key factors of success.

In the Ghana's case, there are also a few things to highlight about technology:
- Ghana has a network providing 24-hour connectivity, with a fierce competition between different providers offering very good deals
-In the last 10 years, cheap phones have become available and nearly everyone had a phone.


Join the conversation:

Photo of DeletedUser


Very interesting post, Anne-Laure.
I'm personally inspired by nature when it comes to our own new collective behaviors enabled by the internet. What actually happened is that previously closed communication channels between people like you and I were opened, allowing collectives to emerge and dissolve naturally.

I believe this shift made / makes us more human. Collectives such as Wikipedia very much resemble a flock of birds for instance. You don't see a true leader but the flock is able to move into the same direction, following a common denominator.

But this also highlights the danger of rumors that you mentioned. If rumor has it that there is a food source to the left, the school of fish will follow.

So yes, a huge challenge we will be facing in many aspects of our future lives is how to harness the power of collectives and channel it into constructive directions. "Connectors" will be key, because interestingly that's also how bird flocks work.

Photo of Stephan Kardos

Hi Matthias, talking about nature and collectives I just wanted to add that there are also *regulative* measures going on when collectives communicate with each other in nature (other than human).

Take ants for instance with their impressive way to communicate:

the way they communicate, e.g. "Food over there!", is by the means of pheromons. That is as one ant, or a couple ants, are going into a direction - first only randomly - , and will always mark their way with pheromons indicting others to follow. What makes an ant to follow you is the strenght of the path of pheromons.

As long as there really is a source of food (signal=true) more ants will follow enforcing the layed path of pheromons attracting more ants (positive loop). As soon as the message turns out false, less ants will go there (regulation), the path of pheromons, getting weaker and finally disappearing (negative loop). So you see, nature implemented regulative measures. I am not sure whether the same is true for rumours which is a more human "concept" and seems more uncontrolled.

Though not an expert on rumours I could imagine that rumours would also "survive" if it turned out false (or some people experienced them as not true). I guess recent economic bubbles are examples for that irrational behaviour of humans. (Consider this last paragraph as personal assumption whitout validation)

Photo of DeletedUser


Thanks Stephan, very good point!

Using your example of ants, I would almost compare their communication via pheromones with our communication via the internet. Once you have more links, sources and web traffic pointing towards a certain rumor it will attract more people, as chances for its truthfulness are higher. However once the rumor turns out to be false or ambiguous, people will lay other trails to sources that may prove the opposite, which will again gain traction from the crowd. We lay our own paths of pheromones, if you like.

I think the way rumors survive is through limited access to other information. Considering that the internet hasn't been around for long, of course the communication channels between people will still have to evolve. But I definitely see similarities emerging.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi Matthias and Stephan, thanks for your great comments.
Matthias, I agree that the idea of collectives is a strong one and that should / could be harnessed. (I am not sure why / how it makes us more "humans"... but this is a long philosophical debate... at least, you got me thinking on that one! :-)). In the case of collectives, such as wikipedia, or other forms of online communities, research shows the importance of connectors and the existence of a small core group and facilitators.
Stephan, great point regarding ants' behaviors depending on the nature of the information. I have in fact started exploring the difference between how true and false information might spread (and survive in the case of rumors) in another inspiration:
I think this will be key to explore this distinction for this challenge.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Also you might want to check Lluis' inspiration on animals:

Photo of DeletedUser


Very good point. I guess what I tried to say is that it moves us back closer to nature / natural behavior. Whether you call this more human or not is another debate. ;)

Photo of Stephan Kardos

Good points, I guess mine was that I claim that human communication can be more manupalitve, strategic, selfish, dishonest and many adjectives more and in general more prone for psychological/manipulative effects. In the ants example communication was more straight forward and more self-regulative. There are however animals that also lie intentionally (apes that raise an alarm to lure others away from a food spot) or unintentionally (the mimicry of certain animals immitating other animals).

I think Matthias had a good point with links in modern communication that kind of validate messages online (or enforce them in cases of blogs) and in general I also agree with Anne-Laure that the valid distinction between essential or rumour will be key

PS: smth. interesting that we have in common with ants is, that apart from humans, only ants make war.

Photo of DeletedUser


The interesting thing you start to discover though is that those dishonest human behaviors tend to happen under the impression of anonymity. Once people feel watched they tend to take on a more socially responsible behavior. In times of the internet this applies to people as well as to institutions.

Christine and Eric discussed it here:

Photo of Arjan Tupan

Great discussion, here. And some very interesting points to watch. It reminds me also about those bogus virus warnings, that sometimes flood the web (or a few years ago would fill up your mailbox), in which the virus or spam was the message itself, that got forwarded to all. I think in information networks you need not only connectors, but also trusted sources to verify the rumor. And then connectors to debunk the message.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Excellent point Arjan on the importance of trusted sources of information. To avoid rumors, one will need indeed trusted sources of information, which in some cases might be people (who could be, but not necessarily) the "connectors) and maybe also some other mechanisms (not sure which ones).
I think it is indeed important to reflect on the difference between the spreading of (true) information and of rumors to make sure we support the first one.
On rumors, I've posted another inspiration:

Photo of Arjan Tupan

Thanks for sharing that link. I only joined this challenge yesterday, and haven't seen all the inspirations yet :).

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

and you've already posted and commented so much. Looking forward to more conversations. :-)

Photo of Arjan Tupan

LOL, me too. I find this a very interesting, but also touching, challenge. I always feel so absolutely powerless when I hear about these events.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Stephan, reading Ashwin's inspiration it made me think of your comment about the fact that apart from humans only ants do war:
You might want to develop this idea on that inspiration. ...

Photo of Cecilia Corral

Take a look at what some people in Mexico are using to stay safe from the drug cartels:

View all comments