TNR's Isaac Chotiner wonders whether the Obama campaign should have objected to this New Yorker cover depicting Barack Obama as a Muslim and his wife as a black radical, which was intended to satirize conservative propaganda about the couple:
What I do not understand, however, is why the Obama campaign has chosen to pick a fight with the magazine, thereby assuring that the story will have legs...
[W]hy make a stink at all? As a colleague put it to me in an email:
"No one would have even noticed it--certainly no one in the right-wing nut-o-sphere--if they'd just kept their mouths shut. Now we're going to get all this protest-too-much commentary..."
As always, the dilemma is whether to (a) try to correct the misperception and any information that reinforces it, which risks drawing more attention to the idea, or (b) ignore it and hope it goes away. At Spinsanity, we chose the first option with the hope that we could shame elites into not spreading the myths. After some indecision, the Obama campaign campaign has made the same choice, even launching a fact-checking website called Fight the Smears. Its response to the New Yorker cover, which may reinforce misperceptions about Obama, can be seen in the same light.
The problem, however, is that corrections are often ineffective and can even strengthen myths and misperceptions in some circumstances.
Here's what I found in joint research with Jason Reifler:
An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire” effect in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
Research by other scholars is similarly pessimistic:
[A] new experiment by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and others shows that hearing the same thing over and over again from one source can have the same effect as hearing that thing from many different people -- the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not. Weaver's study was published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The experiments by Weaver, Schwarz and others illustrate another basic property of the mind -- it is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true, said Schwarz.
Experiments by Ruth Mayo, a cognitive social psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also found that for a substantial chunk of people, the "negation tag" of a denial falls off with time. Mayo's findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004.
"If someone says, 'I did not harass her,' I associate the idea of harassment with this person," said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. "Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person's name again.
"If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind," she added. "Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11."
Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that "Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did," Mayo said it would be better to say something like, "Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks" -- and not mention Hussein at all...
So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no.
Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
I'm still hopeful that shaming elites is worth the potential risk of reinforcing the misperception, but Obama's strategy may not work. It's an almost impossible strategic dilemma.