In 2004, Lindsay Lohan released her debut single, “Rumors.” The song’s music video opens in a parking garage where the paparazzi are surrounding Fake Lindsay’s car, while the Real Lindsay, on the other side of a concrete divide, gets into a different car. Smirking, Real Lindsay vanishes into the night, only to reappear alone in an elevator, lip-syncing sultrily at the CCTV. “I’m tired of rumors starting,” she sings in the chorus, “I’m sick of being followed / I’m tired of people lying / Sayin’ what they want about me…” In a series of shifting, sliding cuts, we follow Real Lindsay as she dances through a club, cameras pointing at her from all angles. Here she is, taking pictures of the paparazzi with a tiny camera she wields throughout the video; here she is, reflected in the black eyes of surveillance cameras as she struts down a hallway.
Lohan said that she wrote her own lyrics, and if we choose to believe her, then we can see the drama in “Rumors” arising from a flashpoint in her life: a rocky transition from Disney Channel teen to adult star. The song cemented her reputation as a party girl; embraced it, even. Lohan paints herself as feisty and a little troubled—the kind of young woman who, six years after her single came out, would write, in practically microscopic letters, “fuck u” on her middle fingernail during a probation hearing. Rather than reject the gossip that swirls around her, with “Rumors,” Lohan takes control of her own narrative. The closing scene of the music video, in which she’s whisked away from the club in a helicopter, shows Lindsay dropping her tiny camera from the sky. Is she destroying her side of the story—her photo evidence—or is she hoping, like a strategic leak, that it gets picked up?
In music and celebrity, as in life, rumors become a method of defining one’s image—a way of wrangling the unruly portrait of an existence watched by others. Divorce, a rocky relationship, drug abuse, alcoholism: these are strategically disseminated narratives. True or not, once enshrined in history, rumors aren’t really rumors. They’re pretty close to being facts.
The truth is out there, but it’s elusive and hard to pin down. Rumors swirl. Rumors spread, like the growth of a virus, mutating along the way. Rumors mill, or perhaps are milled—there’s a sense that something is being generated, that some core kernel of fact, however misheard, has run through the social machine to become a rumor, since rumors don’t arise out of thin air. There’s always a reason for a rumor. Most rumors are necessarily sordid in nature—a rumor thrives in backchannels, in DMs and secret Slacks, because the details aren’t often fit for public consumption. We believe a rumor because we suspect it to be true, or because we want it to be true, or we fear that, worst of all, it’s too good to be true, which makes us want to believe it all the more. When the conversation is close to home, things that seem all too probable—layoffs, badly behaving bosses—become enveloped in the shadow of rumor.
With news articles published in hundreds of outlets every hour and thousands of takes streaming through our feeds—tweets and images and commentary from verified and unverified sources—parsing the stories of the day has become a sophisticated skill. Constantly bombarded with information, readers simultaneously act as curators, fact checkers, and opinion editors. This has become all the more challenging under a political administration that has no qualms about lying outright.
Press conferences are for the powerful; rumors are for ordinary people trying to take down people in power.
Finding the truth feels paramount. It’s why we flag and debunk fake news, why we fact check Trump’s tweets, why context and framing matter when we quote disingenuous sources. The very concept of fake news has been wrested by trolls, who weaponize it to challenge things that are, in fact, true. The phenomenon has had an effect on young audiences: I was astonished to learn recently that many Gen Z teens are skeptical of mainstream media, liberal and conservative alike; they find it too easily biased. But there’s a danger in conflating all the different kinds of misinformation we encounter daily, especially if we dismiss the power of word of mouth.
Lindsay Lohan, a woman who’s lived in celebrity for her entire conscious life, knows something that we aren’t fully comfortable with: rumors are sources of power. For Lohan, they give her the ability to control her image; for the rest of us who live a reality that doesn’t match the dominant narrative, they can be a form of resistance. A tool available to all, rumors can act as antidotes to institutional violence, propaganda campaigns, or political misconduct. Press conferences are for the powerful; rumors are for ordinary people trying to take down people in power. When you have an abusive boss, you have few options through conventional channels, but you can use backchannels to share what you know. In this way, rumors can warn. They can protect.
When the Shitty Media Men list, a Google spreadsheet documenting allegations of bad behavior of men in media and publishing, became public knowledge in October 2017, I was with a group of women at a writing retreat. One of us knew someone who knew someone who procured a PDF. We huddled together over her phone and scrolled through the spreadsheet. I had heard whispers of some of the allegations—ranging from harassment via Twitter DMs to assault—but many more were news to me. It was a spectrum of hurt that felt both shocking and utterly banal—the stuff of women’s lives. It made me wonder what I wasn’t hearing, and what warnings I had already missed.
After it circulated, the Shitty Media Men list quickly came under fire for being libelous. In some circles, the contributors were deemed to be snitches bent on ruining men’s lives; online, the allegations were picked apart as misinformation. Some commentators wondered if sketchy DMs were really worth talking about at all. But the list wasn’t supposed to be news, or even public; it was supposed to be a kind of open-source catharsis. There’s an important difference between an anonymous Google spreadsheet passed between women and the spread of information that’s verifiably false. Though both might be characterized as rumors, fake news is an effort at destruction. Whispers are an effort at survival.
Journalism is a profession of facts. But stories don’t frequently start with the facts. The hard truth is never delivered on demand. So a journalist’s effort at uncovering information requires grappling with its many facets, with conflicting points of view and fuzzy memories. The stories of our day start with a whisper, a secret, a leak. And thus a rumor—however wild, however unmanageable—might ultimately be a way for the truth to come out. And if I’ve learned anything from watching rumors starting, in Lohan’s words, I have learned this: in the days or months or years leading up to an explosive revelation, in bathrooms and text messages and Instagram stories and email chains, long before any media story surfaces, there is often a lot of whispering, and very often the whispers are right.Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn. She is the author of Fantasian (2016) and writes a column on art history at the Paris Review Daily.