We all know that we shouldn't talk about people behind their backs, but sometimes we just can't help ourselves. Gossip can be a powerful thing and some people use gossip about others to gain positions of power while for others it teaches them about the rules of behaviour in social groups.
Just like the flu, gossiped news can spread through whole communities very quickly. Now researchers have taken a model used to predict the spread of infectious diseases and applied it to the spread of information and it's results are crucial for anyone in marketing.
Gossip – where people talk about and evaluate somebody who isn't there is thought to reinforce and maintain social bonds between individuals. Although it can be malicious at times, gossip can also be good by building stronger friendships through shared likes and dislikes between people.
As a way of demonstrating shared values and discussing the everyday comings and goings of people in our lives, gossip is thought to have been around since the time that humans learned to speak.
You can imagine how gossiping was useful when hunting and foraging meant early humans needed to cooperate and share information.
Gossiping about people's abilities or lack of them meant that the group would know who was best for chasing prey, who should identify edible plants and who was a liability to head out with the group. What most likely started as information to help our survival instinct has since moved to an industry monetising on the shaming of celebrities weight and speculation of their love lives.
The way that gossip spreads is not well known and how some information can just dissipate quickly and not be passed on while others spreads through communities like wildfire is of interest to businesses trying to get their messages out.
This week research published in the journal Physics and Society used a model to show the key factors needed to quickly spread gossip and unverified news between people and on social media before there was time to corroborate the facts.
Using equations used to study the spread of infectious diseases, the researchers modelled a society consisting of 10,000 people with a range of political views. They then looked at what happened when different people spread unverified news and found the key to spreading gossip is how much you trusted the person that transmitted it.
The results showed that if you trusted the person spreading the news, regardless of their political alignment the gossip would propagate quickly to the whole social network. However, if you didn't know or trust the person spreading the news, you would need to hear the same news from other people, especially those with different political views before you accepted it as a fact and then spread the news yourself. This group resulted in a much slower spread of the story and far fewer people reached.
If it took three different types of people telling you the same rumour before you believed it, then in a community of 10,000 people the rumour would need to be believed by 250 people before it spread to at least half of the community.
We gossip to share our worries, to seek reassurance and to gain support. This study shows the power that influencers and celebrities are spreading information as trusted 'community' members even if the product or news isn't scientifically verified.
These trusted people, some of whom right now are sharing dangerous and unscientific rumours about vaccinations, 5G and fluoride are able to propagate their messages quickly and based on this study it looks like the spread of fake news is just as contagious as the flu.