The misperception that Barack Obama is a Muslim will not go away.
Frank Gaffney, the right-wing apparatchik last seen suggesting that President Obama's apparent bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was "code" telling "our Muslim enemies that you are willing to submit to them," has written an entire column for the Washington Times arguing that "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself" (via MM). He bases this false conclusion upon a bizarre and elaborate exegesis of Obama's Cairo speech that would embarrass even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist.
We've repeatedly seen members of the press and political figures promoting this myth (or claims that reinforce it) over the last few years. Just in the last week, Media Matters has documented Fox Nation falsely claiming "Obama Says U.S. Is a 'Muslim Country,'" Fox News running a graphic about Obama titled "Islam or Isn't He?", former Washington Times editor Wes Pruden writing that Obama found "his 'inner Muslim'" in Cairo, and Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb asking "if the president hasn't been concealing some greater fluency with the language of the Koran."
It's therefore not surprising that a Pew poll in April found that almost half of all Americans still don't know Obama's religion, including approximately one quarter of the public that either thinks he is a Muslim (11%) or doesn't know and has "heard different things" (13%).
In a new working paper (PDF), my co-author Jason Reifler and the undergraduates in my PS 199AS class here at Duke report the results of new experiments testing the effects of Obama's efforts to correct the Muslim myth. Our findings, which extend my previous research with Reifler on correcting misperceptions, indicate that the myth has a strong social desirability component and that Obama's attempts to correct it may backfire among Republicans. Here's the abstract:
In this paper, we address the question of how to counter political misperceptions, which are often difficult or impossible to eradicate. One explanation for this difficulty is that corrections frequently take the form of a negation (i.e. “Tom is not sick”), a construction that may fail to reduce the association between the subject and the concept being negated (Mayo et al. 2004). We apply this approach to the persistent rumor from the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama is a Muslim, comparing the effectiveness of what we call a misperception negation (“I am not and never have been of the Muslim faith”) with what we call a corrective affirmation (“I am a Christian”), which should be more effective. As expected, we find that the misperception negation was ineffective. However, our hypothesis that the corrective affirmation would successfully reduce misperceptions was only supported when a non-white experimental administrator was present, suggesting a strong social desirability effect on the acceptance of corrective information. In addition, three-way interactions between the corrective affirmation, race of administrator, and party identification suggest that social desirability effects were more prevalent among Republicans. When nonwhite administrators were absent, the corrective affirmation not only failed to reduce Republican misperceptions but caused a backfire effect in which GOP identifiers became more likely to believe Obama is Muslim and less likely to believe he was being honest about his religion. We interpret this reaction as being driven by Obama’s embrace of Christianity, which may provoke cognitive dissonance among Republicans.
See the paper for more.
Update 6/10 9:57 AM: Matthew Yglesias makes a very important point in discussing these findings:
In other words, in politics getting your allies to lie about your opponents can be a very effective political tactic. Similarly, people who care about honesty ought to consider themselves very seriously obligated to reprimand people who are deliberately spreading misinformation. At the end of the day, it’s extremely difficult to actually counter misinformation, and so society needs there to be disincentives to spreading it.
That's exactly right. Both this paper and my previous research with Reifler indicate that corrections often fail to reduce misperceptions and sometimes make them worse. For that reason, it's essential that elites who promote misperceptions be publicly shamed in front of other elites. I think this was the most successful aspect of our work at Spinsanity and it's probably the way in which Factcheck.org and Politifact are most useful as well.
Update 6/10 10:14 AM: Politico's Ben Smith weighs in as well:
Brendan Nyhan, blogger and political scientist, is the lead author of a new working paper (.pdf) from Duke which attempts to study efforts to talk people out of believing that Barack Obama is a Muslim.
The conclusion: It's very hard, if not impossible. That jives with my realization, from the polling data, that the number of people who believe the rumor appears to have remained totally static since some time in 2008, which could mean that nobody is getting persuaded either way.
Nyhan's study found that the only situation in which people who believed that he was a Muslim seemed to be talked out of it was when they were interacting with a non-white interviewer; in other circumstances, the assertion that Obama is Christian made them more likely to assert that he's a Muslim.