On January 2 this year, pastor Foster Mbale of Christ for All Nations Church at area 25 in Lilongwe was sitting comfortably at his house. Then he received a call from a fellow pastor who asked if it was true that he had turned into a snake.
This was after social media was awash with the snake story.
“I just received a phone call from a pastor at our church that people were alleging that I have turned into a snake,” said Mbale.
The rumour on social media forced a crowd of people to run to Mbale’s church where they stoned, smashed and set on fire vehicles belonging to the church.
Mbale is not the first victim of rumours.
Last year, renowned comedian John Nyanga, also known as Izeki or Prophet Z, and Black Missionaries lead vocalist Anjiru Fumulani were declared dead while alive.
As if that was not enough, another rumour emerged recently alleging that musician Skeffa Chimoto had confessed that he had been satanic and that he had quit the practice.
However, Chimoto dismissed this in an interview with The Nation saying: “Some people are spreading rumours that I said on an undisclosed radio station in Blantyre that I have left satanism. They claim I mentioned some other musicians. I have never been a satanist, never.”
On his part Fumulani said he was shocked when he got many phone calls trying to verify if it was true that he was dead.
Historians have turned to other disciplines to gain a thorough understanding of rumours. For example, in 1947, Gordon Allport and Leo Postman conducted a study for understanding rumour-creation. Allport and Postman attempted to recreate the process through which rumours emerge.
By giving a test subject an ambiguous image and asking research participants to describe it to someone else from memory who then passed on the information to a third person, Allport and Postman revealed something striking. Descriptions given by each subject became shorter, more memorable and less ambiguous as they were passed on. Allport and Postman condensed this down to a mathematical formula for rumour creation. The formula shows that people strive to change information so that it gives simple meaning for other recipients. As a result, people get wrong information.
Looking at this revelation locally, one understands how the twisted information results into harmful rumour.
When one just wrote on his Facebook wall “Is it true that AnjiruFumulani is dead?” other Facebook users jumped into conclusion that the talented Chileka-based musician had died and they started forwarding the message.
Psychologist Chiwoza Bandawe of the College of Medicine (CoM), a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), says people create rumours because they have the desire to explain things.
“People have desire to explain things. This desire is called attribution. At the same time, they want to know how and why some things happen. If they don’t have explanation they create one rumour,” he says.
Bandawe says bad rumours have negative impact on the victim because he or she thinks the society does not wish them well.
As Fumulani puts it, rumours, especially about tragedy, send waves of shock and can lead to high blood pressure (HBP) and death of alleged victim.
“In my case, many relatives and my music fans were shocked with my alleged death. It was sad news for many people who love me as a person and as a musician. I became angry with whoever created that rumour,” says Fumulani adding that people who spread bad rumours about death have evil minds.
People encouraged Fumulani to trace the perpetrators of the rumours and bring them to book. But Fumulani just let it go and forgave them.
Peeping through the laws of Malawi, Fumulani could indeed bring the perpetrators to book if he could manage to find and drag the perpetrators to court.
Defamation is prohibited under both criminal and civil law. Under the Penal Code, Chapter 7.01 of the Laws of Malawi, publishing false information that injures the reputation of a person is a criminal offence, a misdemeanor that is punishable by a maximum of three years imprisonment with hard labour.
Mzuzu-based private practice lawyer George Kadzipatike says the Penal Code, especially Chapter 7.01, can be helpful to victims of bad rumours to bring the perpetrators to court.
“Under civil law, a person who spreads, either in writing or by word of mouth, untrue information that lowers the status of another person in the estimation of reasonable people in the society, commits the tort of defamation, and if sued, would be liable to pay damages which are assessed by the courts,” says Kadzipatike.
Bandawe says Malawians can find solution to rumours by verifying any information they get.
Fumulani warns against abusing social media platforms by creating rumours that someday they will be traced and brought to court of law.