Putin on Milk carton“Life would be boring without gossip”, Putin said after an unexplained absence of eleven days.

And indeed, life was not boring during his absence, if you judge by the rumours that were going around. Putin was suffering from a variety of life-threatening illnesses, had  botched cosmetic surgery, died,  succumbed to a coup d’etat, was giving birth to his love child in Switzerland…

As his absence dragged on, more and more people speculated about his disappearance.  #Putinumer (#Putinisdead) was a trending topic on Twitter. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman at the Kremlin, was forced to respond to questions about each rumour, dismissing them as “March madness”. And madness it was. 

Seeing how quick the media was to report such stories, one can only wonder about the credibility of gossip and rumours, and why journalists keep relying on them time and time again.

putin's absence

To begin with, there is often confusion between ‘gossip’ and ‘rumour.’ While the media and some scholars use the terms interchangeably (such as Michelson & Mouly, 2000),  others consider rumor to be “speculative” (Foster, 2004), and define it as “unsubstantiated talk” (Rosnow, 1988 ). Gossip, on the other hand, is usually considered more accurate (Noon & Delbridge, 1993), as studies show that generally, the core message of a gossip “essentially remains intact as it is being transmitted”  (Michelson and Mouly, 2000).  Ivancevich et al. (2008) also claim that at least 75% of the gossip that travels through the grapevine in an organization is true.

Even though they differ in terms of credibility, the functions served by both rumour and gossip are identical (ie, to inform, influence and entertain). However, the motivations to engage in these are quite different (Rosnow and Fine, 1976): “Rumours are underpinned by a desire for meaning or clarification to cope with the uncertainties of life; gossip is primarily stimulated by personal ego and status needs in a social context” (as cited in Michelson and Mouly, 2000).

According to Michelson & Mouly (2000), the literature distinguishes between four distinct types of rumours:

1) The  Pipe Dream or Wish Fulfilment  express the hopes of those who circulate them, such as the Ukranian school children creating the animation video of Putin being abducted by aliens.

2) Bogey or Anxiety Rumours  come out of anxiety and fear, and tend to make the recipients uneasy. The idea of a mini Putin being born in Switzerland could certainly make a few people nervous…

3) Anticipatory Rumours usually occur when people are faced with a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty. If you believed that Putin was a victim of a coup, you may have begun to speculate wildly as to who will replace him, and what will happen next to Russia and Ukraine.

Putin with gun

4) Aggressive Rumours  occur when someone has the intention of harming the target. For example, the claim that Putin had undergone plastic surgery severely undermines the macho image he has carefully cultivated over the years…

Now that Putin is back, we clearly see that some of these rumours are false, since he is alive, and that he was not captured by aliens (unless they still did capture him, but changed their mind after ten days…).

Putin plastic surgery

According to Michelson and Mouly (2000), these types of rumours (and gossip) usually contain an element of truth. Given that Putin does have a girlfriend, it would not be unlikely that she give birth.  And since there was indeed much political unrest that was exacerbated by Boris Nemtsov’s murder, the idea of a coup is not so far fetched.

Due to these glimmers of truth, I can imagine that even the wildest rumour can be very tempting to a journalist. As we say, “il n’y a pas de fumee sans feu.” There’s no smoke without fire.