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How Narratives and Evidence Influence Rumor Belief in Conflict Zones: Evidence from Syria

  • Justin Schon


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.

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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

His research focuses on conflict and migration. His book, Surviving the War in Syria: Survival Strategies in a Time of Conflict, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He received his PhD in Political Science from Indiana University, Bloomington.

The author would like to thank Karen Rasler, Yehuda Magid, Lauren MacLean, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. He wishes to acknowledge financial support from Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop, the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), and a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) award for covering fieldwork expenses. During the writing process, the research reported in this grant was supported by the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under award #W911NF1810267 (Multi-University Research Initiative). The views and conclusions contained in this document are his own and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies either expressed or implied of the Army Research Office or the U.S. Government.



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How Narratives and Evidence Influence Rumor Belief in Conflict Zones: Evidence from Syria

  • Justin Schon


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