Why denying rumors may make things worse.

Yesterday, I heard a caller on a right wing radio show claim that all these Muslim gas station owners may just switch off their electricity and bring the US to a halt.  To my horror, the show’s hosts encouraged the thought and raised the question of whether Obama is a Manchurian candidate.  What does his money come from?  Buying him the presidency would be much cheaper than a nuclear war.

What to do?  Deny it all?

Consider a real case:  There was a rumor about the ingredients in McDonald’s hamburgers, and it was pretty disgusting.  We’re talking red worms. 

Now suppose McDonald’s had started running commercials emphatically denying that they use red worms.  There are a number of reasons why this might well not help.  For example, many people would  expect that they’d deny it whether or not it was true.   A campaign might also serve to inform people who had never heard  the rumor.

Worse, they may reinforce an association in our minds between their hamburger’s and red worms.  A lot of the power of a lot of rumors has to do with the implicit associations they set up, and those associations can get strengthened by affirmations or denials.   

 We’ve learned an enormous amount about people’s belief-forming habits over the last 20-30 years, and the idea that many of us are attracted to – the mind is something like a word processor with a logic check and easy systematic edit functions – is  totally unsuited to the real world.

Relatedly, we can, of course, be rational, but actually revising beliefs in the light of five minute presentation of evidence is much more rare than one might think.  And all sorts of associations can remain that will reinstitute the beliefs.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?  Well, I worry Obama’s rumor denial web site may be doing more damage than good.  There’s a page that gives a lot of space to the idea that his wife is a radical racist; it even locates her bad statement in that church (and we all know…) in some sort of Women’s Session (omigod, shades of Hillary).  Of course all this is accompanied by denials and the word “Lie.”  But we’ve also got a pretty clear picture that fits in with other association.  Perhaps it might be more affective to blanket the country with clips of sweet Michelle and children relating lovingly to moms and kids of different races.  Perhaps best of all would be getting extremely good management consultants in.  From the corporate world!

It seems generally agreed that John Kerry was very mistaken in not responding to the swift boat rumors.  But saying “Kerry is not a coward and he is not a liar” might not help at all.  Showing him in Viet Nam (regarding which we all have negative associations anyway) saying he is not a coward (right, like we know some were even murdering civilians) might have done real harm.  Perhaps an extensive positive campaign would have helped, but I don’t have the experience or expertise to offer really good advice.

In any case, having been in a ‘faculty leadership role’ on a stressed-out campus awash in rumors, I spent some time a few years ago going through management  literature on all this; it was clear that most experts thought repeating rumors, if only to deny them, was a bad idea.  Jender’s remark  here  led me to  go back and checkmore recent work.  A quick glance this morning at what Amazon.com makes available from Allan Kimmel’s Rumor and Rumor Control reinforced the idea that denials seldom work and are not to be encouraged.  I think there is an exception for the occasions when the topic is one that can be dealt with just rationally.  E.g., there’s a rumor about that there will be a sale at a certain store.  But don’t count on it.

(And before anyone takes me to task:  My examples just try to draw on the kind of associations I reckon some ads try to exploit; I don’t mean to diss Michelle, our troops, etc. And the red worm example is in Kimmel)

Added later:  It isn’t that there is nothing one can do about rumors.  But the best strategy is not necessarily what seems right to our common sense.  Probably doing things like combating negative rumors with prositive images is a help, but handling rumors on a national level is a whole lot harder than we might naturally think.

23 thoughts on “Why denying rumors may make things worse.

  1. I disagree. I think that Obama has learned from his past mistakes. He took too long to address the Jeremiah Wright thing, and it got out of control and people still won’t let it go. He took too long to handle the Muslim thing (which shouldn’t be an issue anyway, but that’s a whole different story), and obviously that’s out of hand. By contrast, when rumors about an affair by McCain came up, he squashed them immediately and they went away. We can discuss whether that’s an issue of media bias, I suppose, but they’re some pretty striking examples. It seems to me that if rumors are going around, as one addressed on the website is, that Barack Obama won’t publicly show is birth certificate, his willingness to post it on the internet and say “no, um, here it is” seems like common sense to me.

    I think it’s a timing game, and you have to get it right. You don’t want to address the rumor too early and give it any form of validity, but you don’t want it to get widely into the popular consciousness before you address it. I honestly think that he’s learning where that line is quite well, and I think the site — for now, pending future evidence on how it’s used — is a good idea.

  2. Interesting points, Cara. There’s an important difference between denying the rumor in a way that involves repeating it and other actions. I hope I didn’t suggest that inaction is the best course.

    This post was really about one kind of response: denial. There are tons of others. For example, Obama’s ‘racism’ speach may not have repeated any of the ugly rumors about him, but rather placed him in a different position.

  3. I tend to agree with Cara based on the experience of previous campaigns, but I do find this data worrying. (And I know that one of the things I did when I got to the rumours site was go “Hey, I haven’t heard all of these! Now I can find out what people are saying.” With a different attitude, perhaps I’d read through them all and get worried about Obama.) However, I wonder if a relevant difference between the studies and what happens in politics today is that politicians are dealing with rumours that are *already* circulating very widely. (How widely? I don’t know. Some on the site were news to me, but I live in the UK and I don’t read right-wing blogs or watch Fox.) It may be that if the rumours are already receiving lots of coverage a denial doesn’t shore them up but the absence of a denial could.

  4. I’m not completely sure what the disagreement is about. The idea that repeating rumors very often creates deeper associations? There’s a lot of theory and data behind that.

    So the idea might be that nonetheless, it is effective to deny rumors? Clearly something needs to be done, but I’d like to see some reason for thinking that’s effective enough to offset the deepening of the associations.

    The folk saying “where there’s smoke there’s fire” captures deeply a way the mind works. And studies which tried telling people that McDonald’s didn’t use red worms turned them off McDonald’s. So what effect is a page of stuff telling us the Obama’s are not really radical outsiders who joined in at that church? Well, a test would be interesting.

    We’re really not in a field where our intuitions are particularly good. In fact, they tend to be bad. And remember, you look at the denials thinking he’s a really good guy.

    Since I’m not an expert, I haven’t elaborated at all how to address the rumors, but one idea would be to put in place much more positive things.

    As for they’re already out there and spreading, I don’t know. I think you will find that major enterprises that have to deal with wide-spread rumors (such as glass in baby food) do not put up national adverts saying “There is no glass in Gerber’s.” Their campaigns emphasize all they do to provide a great and safe product for babies (as they think).

  5. Basically, JJ, you’re shaking up a long and fervently held conviction of mine– for which I’m grateful to you!– and I’m trying to fight it. ;)

  6. Is it possible that we’re dealing with two different political climates? I’m not terribly familiar with politics and political coverage in the UK, but in the U.S. there seems to be a demand for politicians to address these rumors. They’re asked about them time and time again, and if they don’t deny them people get more up and arms and say “well they didn’t deny it! They must be hiding something!” I’m not really denying the scientific research, but I also think that there are other factors which could balance against that and still make addressing the rumors a good idea.

    Also, I’m not sure that food and politics are a fair comparison. I think that people have a more visceral reaction to food. Like in the U.S. when there was the whole Wendy’s thumb in the chili hoax, I knew that it wasn’t real or Wendy’s fault, but I couldn’t eat there for a while because the place just made me think of a thumb in my food. Even though I knew there wasn’t one, the thought grossed me out and made me lose my appetite. I don’t know, maybe I’m different, or giving people too much credit, but I don’t have the same reaction with politics.

    And there are different kinds of rumors as well. I mean, if Obama decided to combat the “elitist” thing by saying “No, I am not an elitist,” that would be laughable. The best course of action would be, as you said, to show Obama doing non-elitist type things (a ridiculous staple of politics already). But other than to paint those who keep spreading the Michelle rumors as liars, I’m not sure what else can be done about those. They’ve done the things you’ve suggested — trying to paint her as a nice, progressive, family woman (which she is) — and the folks just keep making up more different crap.

  7. Jender, what a nice reaction. I am not sure that if we firmly distinguish between repeating the rumor and addressing them in other ways, you really disagree. Or would disagree in practice. Maybe I should leave well enough alone, but I suspect that if you faced some serious professional rumor that was circulating among students, you wouldn’t get up in front of your class and say something like “I want you all to know that I have never been drunk when I graded your tests, and I have never spilled gin on tests I’m grading, either in the evenings in my office or at home.”

    Far better to say something like “I understand that there’s been some concern about the state of a test I graded. I am very sorry to tell you that, as a caretaken of an elderly cat, there is a limit to which anything paper can be protected in my house.”

    Opps. Getting silly. Still, I believe a visitor to this site has had a problem with cats and tests. Awfully like litter, you know.

  8. Cara, it isn’t national difference, I can say with certainty. FP authors are located in a lot of different places. And I’m not saying he should not address the rumors. Clearly, he should. The question is about how.

    Unfortunately, on many things people have visceral reactions, and the involvement of race and gender isn’t making it better.

    Maybe you’ll get a better sense if we think in terms of someone you might favor less. Suppose there’s a rumor that John McCain gropes little girls. It might be a really bad idea to put up a web site whose content is principally “John McCain does not grope little girls.” And even worse for McCain to go about saying he doesn’t grope little girls.

    Do people have a viseral reaction to “Obama is a Muslim” that is comparable. I’m afraid so, and I’m concerned that a website about his being a radical anti-American, along with his wife, is not a help. Adding “that’s a lie” might really not have much power.

    So what should he do? I really think this is a matter for some expertise, which I don’t have, but clearly things like
    a. Attacking the attackers. E.g., why do the right find it so hard to believe in the true patriotism of people who look slightly different?
    b. Continue positioning MO as a true American mother.
    c. Emphasizing Obama’s credentials…opps! possible problem there. :)
    could all be done.

  9. See, my problem to the rumour-quashing site is that it looks terribly spun. ‘Lie – there is a tape of Michelle saying bad thing’ ‘Truth – there is no tape’.

    This doesn’t address whether she said bad things or not, and the fact that this is left out of the ‘truth’ section gives the impression she may have said stuff, but no one caught it on tape (cf. ‘I did not have /sex/ with that woman’, or whatever the statement was, from B. Clinton).

  10. I’m reminded of the famous Lyndon Johnson story:
    Back in 1948, during his first race for the U.S. Senate, Lyndon Johnson was running about ten points behind, with only nine days to go. He was sunk in despair. He was desperate. And it was just before noon on a Monday, they say, when he called his equally depressed campaign manager and instructed him to call a press conference for just before lunch on a slow news day and accuse his high-riding opponent, a pig farmer, of having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children.

    His campaign manager was shocked. “We can’t say that, Lyndon,” he supposedly said. “You know it’s not true.”

    “Of course it’s not true!” Johnson barked at him. “But let’s make the bastard deny it!”


  11. BrevisMus– really good point. The full denial is perhaps a little better: “No such tape exists. Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word.” But actually adding on additional carefully worded denials isn’t so great either. I did notice that they hadn’t ruled out her use of a different epithet in a different place (including someplace other than the pulpit at Trinity!). But I thought that was just me being a philosopher.

  12. I am not an expert on this either but if I recall the literature about rumor denying, it’s the little word “not” that is causing problems. Apparently, as humans we have the nasty habit to remember things without the “not.” In other words, when Obama denies being a Muslim by saying “I am not a Muslim,” this will eventually in many memories be turned into “I am a Muslim.” I know, it sounds silly but there is tons of research on this, including research on the lack of credibility of eye witness accounts. So, in this example, Obama might be better off to say something like “I am a Christian.” Maybe even combine the two – that’s where we need the help from the experts! – “I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian and here is my church.” The problem, as I recall, comes when the denying sentence stands on its own.

    I think Cara’s point about timing is a good one. We need both, though: Positive denials (avoiding “not”) that squash rumors quickly.

    I wonder, though, if there’s another difference between the McCain rumors and the Obama rumors squashing. Please correct me if you know otherwise but I think that the Obama rumors are kept alive by repeated email campaigns. Like UrbanLegends, they are not dropped but rather forwarded. I don’t think that happens with the McCain rumors…

  13. Apologies, JJ, I thought that all of the bloggers at FP were based in the U.K. I’ve had political-type debates on my blog before with people from the U.K., and they’ve often ended up pointing out a cultural discrepancy that was making us see things rather differently. I thought it was at least possible that this was the case here.

    As for the suggestions — for a.), McCain is smart enough that he’s not spreading these rumors himself, but the right-wing pundits are. It’s harder for candidates to attack the media than attack an opponent. Furthermore, Obama has made a point of running a positive campaign, where he will attack positions but not people and character. He can’t back out of that now. He’s doing both b.) and c.), I think. To Rachel, I’m fairly positive that every time Obama is forced to explain that he’s not a Muslim, he also takes the time to explain that he is a Christian (though the church thing is tricky now, since his last one is so controversial, he left it, and now doesn’t have a new one yet).

    I don’t know. I think that there are definitely good points here, don’t get me wrong. I guess that I’m just willing to give this a shot. I certainly don’t have blind faith in Obama, but I do know that the people he has working for him know what the fuck they’re doing. Virtually every time they’ve tried out something new that made people raise eyebrows to begin with, it worked out wonderfully for them. It’s precisely how they came from behind to win the primary. And I sure as hell don’t claim to know more about politics than they do. So I’m personally giving it a chance and seeing how it goes. It’s possible that it could fail miserably, I’d change my mind, and hopefully they’ll be smart enough to change course in such an event.

  14. One hope I have is that the rumour denying site can and will be used by armies of people to help defend Obama on the more widely read nasty blogs, lists etc. — even on talk shows. If, that is, we can bear going near them. Because of the site, if you want to defend Obama on some anti-Obama thread, for example, you have something more authoritative to quote, cite and link to than simply SCREAMING “it isn’t true”. I certainly hope statements of defence spread as far and as fast as the scurrilousness. Rumour Theory (if I might call it that) might not have kept pace with the Web. (Though whether the Web wildfire is widespread enough in the general voting population to make an electoral difference is another question, but it surely can’t hurt to give Obama supporters — and supporters of decency in politics for that matter — some ammo they can use out there in the virtually nasty world.)

  15. This is a comment that likely runs parallel to this great post and conversation, but perhaps it is important as well. I’m impressed by and also depressed by the amount of time we must spend attempting to deal with the lies, misprepresentations, racism and sexism while the terribly important issues before the American people lie forgotten by the wayside. Or, at least, they don’t pack anywhere near the same excitement, energy or impact. I’m by no means trying to say that the underlying attitudes that some of the lies etc. bring to light are unimportant, not at all. In fact, I spend a fair bit of time focussing on them and I care deeply about the conversations. But I do feel that we are continually and incessantly distracted by them.

    I often think that this is the real point. Who cares, “they” think, whether the truth is spoken or anyone knows what it may be, as long as the conversation is not about the war in Iraq, American militarism, the ills of global capitalism, the erosion of democracy … as long as the conversations that really have impact are NOT about those issues. The conversation itself has the tendency to erode the very democratic urges that it claims to serve.

  16. Traditionally, the most effective method has been to come out with a strong statement about what you do put in your burgers instead of denying what you don’t.

    Obama declares himself to be a Christian works a lot better than Obama denies being Muslim.
    When you see the media frame the dispute on whether or not he is a muslim instead of is he or is he not a Christian, they are flogging the rumour in order to spread it further without looking like the partisan hacks that they are.

  17. There was a nice piece at Common Dreams on Friday addressing this topic,


    The writers point out, quite helpfully I think, that when responding to smears, one should address the ultimate goal of the smear directly, rather than the proximal goal, and also, expose the person or people doing the smearing and their reasons for doing so, as that usually fades into the background and the n’er do well is safe from view.

    A rather nice example is given.

  18. Interesting link, hysperia. Thanks. It’s got good positive suggestions, as you say. The article in turn links to the Washington Post article at:

    That article describes some of the research behind the idea that denials can reinforce rumors, and it includes a reference to research supporting Rachel’s remark about our losing the “not.” More generally, it maintains, “The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.”

    Given some people’s obfuscation about the causes of 9/11 and the need to go to war, the following from the WaPo is ironic:

    Similarly, many in the Arab world are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane.

    Those notions remain widespread even though the federal government now runs Web sites in seven languages to challenge them. Karen Hughes, who runs the Bush administration’s campaign to win hearts and minds in the fight against terrorism, recently painted a glowing report of the “digital outreach” teams working to counter misinformation and myths by challenging those ideas on Arabic blogs.

    A report last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, however, found that the number of Muslims worldwide who do not believe that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is soaring — to 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 percent of Indonesians, 53 percent of Jordanians, 41 percent of Pakistanis and even 56 percent of British Muslims.

  19. Cara,

    I don’t mind in the least being mistaken for a Brit.

    I’m not sure the Obama campaign hasn’t made any mistakes. Some loses at the end were really very large and it’s going to take a long time before we fully understand what sustained the momentum that got him the absolutely crucial final support from the special delegates.

    Even more, given how solid but still counter-intuitive a lot of recent understanding of the human mind is, I’d be especially skeptical in this area.

    In fact, though a lot of understanding counts as recent, equally a lot was anticipated by David Hume in the 18th century. Hume really grasped that belief was deeply affected by what makes an idea vivid and, as a consequence, human beings are proned to influences at odds with reason. That’s a kind of insight that allows for the thought that both affirmations and denials might make an idea vivid and so equally lead to a more entrenched belief.

  20. JJ: Thanks for following that link and putting it up. Amazing. And similarly, I still hear people saying that Sadaam Hussein was responsible for 911, or that the US had to invade Iraq to follow al-Qaeda, or to get the WMDs. I heard someone argue that on a PBS voters debate during the Primaries and no one set him straight. It made me wonder if they shared his understanding. And also spoke of the power of the deceptions that Bush et al perpetrated – once said, a great deal of the damage was done and it’s very difficult indeed to undo it.

  21. Thanks, Jender! Your capacity to see merit in more than one side often amazes me!

    hysperia, I think i saw the same pbs show. I was so sad. what has political discourse in the US come to? Your earlier comment about what we do talk about was spot on, I think. It’s tempting to blame the press, but it may really be us who pay for gossip rather than analysis.

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