How do you silence rumors in politics?

Emmanuel Macron on the phone. (drawing) – JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP

  • In an M6 report on dinners in illegal restaurants in full confinement, one of the people interviewed said that several ministers were present at this evening.
  • The executive denies the presence of any minister at these meals. For its part, the Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation.
  • But how do you silence rumors in politics?

A rumor that turned a controversy into a state affair. In a report, broadcast last Friday by M6, on illegal dinners in Paris in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, one of the organizers, identified as Pierre-Jean Chalençon, claimed to have “dined in the week in 2/3 illegal restaurants “With” a number of ministers “.

If the collector, also owner of the Palais Vivienne which would have hosted one of the clandestine dinners, reconsidered his statements, evoking a “joke” and “an April fool”, it did not take more to launch a real manhunt. Who are the ministers who attended these dinners? Some mention the Minister in charge of Foreign Trade and Attractiveness,
Franck Riester, or the government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal. None of them, responds the executive, which denies the presence of any minister at these meals. But once started, it’s hard to silence a rumor.

Social networks, vectors of rumors

For Philippe J. Maarek, professor of political communication at the University of Paris Est – UPEC and author of Communication and Marketing of Politicians (LexisNexis), it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to stop a rumor: “Policy advisers do everything to avoid them because they know how difficult it is to stem a rumor once it starts. It’s all the more complicated when a rumor is something elusive, we don’t know where it comes from, ”he explains.

The exercise is even harder since the appearance of social networks: “Before social networks, the rumor spread more slowly, it had to first reach the ears of the classic press before being known to the big public. Now, it is an evil which has much more importance and capacity for destruction ”, judge Alexandre Eyries, HDR research professor in political communication at the University of Bourgogne Franche Comté and author of Communication 3.0, published by Dijon University Publishing (EUD). “With the rise of social networks, rumors circulate very quickly, because information spreads very quickly. It creates explosive situations that must be cleared very quickly, ”adds the teacher.

Crisis communication

“Demine” them, yes, but how? First, quite simply, by doing nothing, by letting the rumor die of itself: “The less we talk about it, the faster the rumor will die out,” says Philippe J. Maarek, who cites the example. of the Porsche case of DSK. In 2011, The Parisian had published a photo of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, potential candidate for the Socialist primary, and his wife, Anne Sinclair, riding in a Porsche. The car turned out to be that of Ramzi Khiroun, a friend of the couple who was in charge of their communication. “The photo had caused controversy, but DSK had said nothing and the rumor had slowly died out on its own”, illustrates the professor.

Others choose the opposite solution: crisis communication. “We can choose to deny it, to show that the rumor is false, that there were no breaches. The idea is to be able to respond point by point and extinguish the fire by highlighting the evidence, ”suggests Alexandre Eyries. But for Philippe J. Maarek, this technique can have the opposite effect: “Once you have a bad image, even if you try to justify yourself, to prove the contrary, you keep it. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, from the moment he had a bling-bling image, he was never able to get rid of it. For the rumor, it’s the same, it’s a poison, ”analyzes the professor of political communication.

No certainty to extinguish the rumor

Should we then divert attention to silence the rumor? For Philippe J. Maarek, this third solution is “violent but effective”: “A new rumor can make it possible to annihilate a previous rumor. A minister affected by a rumor can, for example, silence the rumor by announcing that he is launching an important new political initiative or a new bill, ”he suggests. However, “none of these possibilities gives you absolute certainty of extinction of the rumor,” he believes.

This can even have unforeseeable consequences. This is the case of the one launched by Donald Trump on his Twitter account during his tenure on the Chinese origin of the coronavirus epidemic. “Americans of Asian origin are being attacked at the moment because Donald Trump had systematically referred to Covid-19 as” the Chinese virus “,” explains Philippe J. Maarek. Say nothing, deny or divert attention … Whatever technique you choose, silencing a rumor turns out to be more difficult than expected: “If I say nothing, you are told ‘who does not say a word consents’. If I protest by denying, it immediately seems suspect, the situation is inextricable, ”concludes Alexandre Eyries.

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