In 2006, the year of our last elections, we first published much of what follows about the inevitability of rumours in a conflict-prone society such as ours – especially in the penumbra of general elections. This occurs because typically, little direct formal communication or sharing of information occurs among the competitors for power.
Informally, however, there are likely to be numerous parties who are constantly talking with one another. Any gap in knowledge or communication may be filled by rumour or misrepresentations, which often contain serious inaccuracies that exacerbate the conflict. This is the stage at which we are: over the past few days rumours have been flying fast and furious in the vacuum of credible information occasioned by the seeming lassitude of GECOM.
Parties’ ability to deal constructively with conflict is largely determined by how well they understand the situation. A history of secrecy and deception makes it more difficult for parties to understand one another’s and may contribute to inaccurate perceptions and destructive rumours. This may make it difficult for parties to understand who else is involved in the conflict, what they’re doing, and why. This has been the history of our politics since 1961.
The key to effective rumour control efforts is an ability to perform three functions. The first step, rumour identification, requires the support of people in each constituency group who are in a position to hear the latest rumours as they are circulating. In general, these are people who are very active in the conflict and interested in developing more constructive approaches. It is important for these individuals to be widely trusted by members of their constituency group.
The next phase of the rumour control process requires a workable mechanism determining the truthfulness of rumours. Here “rumour investigators” help determine, from their group’s perspective, the accuracy of rumours pertaining to their group. While there will certainly be cases where the practices of secrecy and deception make reliable rumour checking impossible, there will also be many cases in which incorrect rumours can be at least partially corrected.
The third and final phase of rumour control efforts is rumour correction. Here the investigators need some reliable mechanism for promptly reporting their findings to interested parties. We cannot depend on the competing parties’ spin doctors. In cases where there is no agreement on what has happened, the investigators should report what is known, what is not known, and what is still being investigated. They should also report differing interpretations of available facts. When an investigation determines that the rumour is not true, then a plan for correcting the error should be initiated. The success of this plan depends upon the credibility of the intermediaries and their ability to communicate widely, effectively, and quickly.
The media often plays an important role in rumour control. They can correct misinformation and publicize information coming from the rumour-control effort. This is especially important when negotiations or other processes are going on – such as the counting of polls, which by definition have to be conducted behind closed doors. When these processes are held in private, the press can get very suspicious, and will sometimes try to develop stories from rumours about the private meetings. In addition, the media sometimes publicizes inflammatory remarks and slanted stories that do not give an accurate picture of the situation.
Competing parties and intermediaries can help prevent such occurrences by making the effort to explain the issues to reporters in as careful and non-biased a way as possible. They can explain what transparency management processes are in place (if any) or are being considered, who is involved, and how the process is structured. They can also ask for the media’s support in giving positive, responsible coverage of these events.
In a polarised society such as Guyana, rumour can easily set off a spark that will initiate another conflagration that can engulf our dear country. We are hoping that in preparation for the next election, a “rumour control” mechanism such as we have suggested can be put into place by our Civil Society.
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