How Narratives and Evidence Influence Rumor Belief in Conflict Zones: Evidence from Syria
By Justin Schon, Indiana University, Bloomington
Armed conflict creates a context of high uncertainty and risk, where accurate and verifiable information is extremely difficult to find. This is a prime environment for unverified information—rumors—to spread. Meanwhile, there is insufficient understanding of exactly how rumor transmission occurs within conflict zones. I address this with an examination of the mechanisms through which people evaluate new information. Building on findings from research on motivated reasoning, I argue that elite-driven narrative contests—competitions between elites to define how civilians should understand conflict—increase the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction. Civilians respond by attempting thorough evaluations of new information that they hope will allow them to distinguish evidence from narratives. These evaluations tend to involve some combination of self-evaluation, evaluation of the source, and collective sense-making. I examine this argument using over 200 interviews with Syrian refugees conducted in Jordan and Turkey. My findings indicate that people are usually unable to effectively distinguish evidence from narratives, so narrative contests are powerful drivers of rumor evaluation. Still, civilian mechanisms of rumor evaluation do constrain what propaganda elites can spread. These findings contribute to research on civil war, narrative formation, and information diffusion.