Rumours and misinformation are frequent during disease outbreaks and longer-term public health interventions, such as vaccine campaigns. The spread of rumours and misinformation are among the biggest concerns for risk communications officers. Traditionally, rumours are seen through the lens of epidemiology and responded to using epidemiological tools. This includes the surveillance of rumours, the identification of their meaning, monitoring new rumours and attempting to counter them by spreading “accurate” information to minimize/or combat them.
Social science research thinks about rumours very differently. During outbreaks we know that rumours can be a source of information about people’s concerns, understandings and perceptions of disease and its management. For social scientists, listening to and exploring the concerns that lie behind rumours is a valuable entry point for disease control. Rumours can be caused by the apparatus that is being used to control the spread of disease and the ways that information is given to people, so listening to rumours can be important for improving the way in which health campaigns are delivered. Moreover, much social science research on rumours related to science and medicine in Africa has shown that rumors are often connected with past experiences including concerns over governmental control and abuse; problematic power relations between the state, communities, and individuals; inequitable resource extraction, colonial and post-colonial enterprises of various kinds; and previous medical interventions that have been experienced as dangerous or unethical. Listening to rumours is a way of taking these experiences seriously and designing interventions that are sensitive to particular historical and political contexts.