How Rumors Grow Into Votes, or Don't

There is a lot of angry chatter in the streets of my neighborhood these days. Community members recently learned that the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), which operates a number of programs for the homeless in NYC, intends to combine several of their facilities into a vertical "campus" just down the street, taking over a 12-story loft building. The facility will include a 325 bed shelter for single men as well as outpatient drug abuse and detoxification treatment programs. Basically, it will be large. Very large. Yet the construction project was planned, signed, sealed, and delivered without consulting or even informing the immediate community.

BRC has been carrying out their construction plans in secret, and as a result community members have spent months imagining the worst as local politicians have essentially dismissed any doubts as the selfish ravings of those who are only concerned about their property values. There is widespread worry about putting a facility this size into a community that has grown rapidly in the last ten years without a comparable increase in city services (in fact, our local hospital was just closed and sold to developers). There is also worry that the sheer magnitude of the intended facility signals an unwelcome return to the era of asylum-style warehousing for the mentally ill, homeless and addicts, an approach that has proven ineffective and prone to abusive and inhumane treatment. Our neighbors have raised some very real questions, and nobody is answering them.

From a political standpoint, we all get it. It is politically expedient for politicians to support services for the homeless while ensuring that something as undesirable as a hospital-sized rehab center and shelter is placed far away from their wealthiest supporters. This mentality, however, has resulted in some fallout that is not just relevant to New York City, but to a nation that has been overwhelmed by Tea Party-style misinformation and alarmism of late.

The unintended consequence of the information vacuum created by BRC's secrecy is that it has jump-started the local rumor mill. On my block, a block on which a year ago nobody knew their neighbors, gossip has forged connections and spread information. Information that may or may not be true. Hearsay, after all, is ultimately more powerful than an unspoken truth.

More importantly, while the controversy over BRC's plans is an isolated issue in an isolated Manhattan community, the gossip on the block concerns some high profile potential candidates in the next mayoral election. Allowing local concerns to escalate to the level of panic without bridging the information gap is, as we are quickly learning, the quickest way for a politician to make themselves irrelevant. My neighborhood is in the process, unintentionally, of creating a gossip-fueled pseudo-truth that may grow to knock several candidates out of the next mayoral race. Many of our representatives have attempted to back off on their unconditional support for BRC's plans at the last minute, but it's too late. We may all live on one block, but gossip always has legs of its own. Our rumors are not quite as isolated as we are.

If we learned anything as a nation in the last year, it's that another group bonded by panic, the Tea Partiers, don't have to speak the truth to be heard. They arrived on the scene at a moment in which the economy was crashing, the face of our political leadership was changing, and nobody was making sure that people understood what was going on and what we as a nation needed to do to fix what was broken. Understandable fear took on a power of its own through the spread of rumors and hearsay in the blogosphere. Eventually, the growing panic was co-opted by people that would benefit from keeping things as they were, and now the rest of us find ourselves with an irate and frustrated but very powerful fringe voting against their own interests in a fury of blind rage.

These two situations are very different, but illustrate something relevant to any politician hoping to get elected or reelected. Voters don't have to act rationally. They don't have to do the research. They can act wholly based on something they heard in a local store that struck a sour chord with them. They can act based on a complete lack of information, not an excess of knowledge. Fear and gossip that begin with an information vacuum always end with a rumor that is difficult to control even if it's not true.

The only thing that can put these rumor-fueled fires out, both on my block and nationally, is communication and information. In our neighborhood, BRC needs to get on board with this concept soon, since after months of being called a responsible organization by politicians, the media is starting to tell the real story, which isn't pretty. A little transparency would go a long way for them. The Democratic Party needs to switch to a more effective strategy so that the media does not remain the mouthpiece of those who benefit from fomenting panic. The Republican Party needs to take their party back from the fringe elements that seem hell bent on overthrowing the constitutionally elected government.

Didn't our mothers always tell us that it's easier to float a rumor than to sink one? If anybody should know this, it's people who work in politics.