Slate's Farhad Manjoo has written a provocative new article arguing that the Obama administration won't be able to knock down the "death panel" myth and should stop talking about it entirely:
[H]e's going after folks in the middle—people who've heard about the death panels but aren't sure what to believe. Will his defense work on those people? Perhaps a few of them. He'll probably convince some Americans that death panels are a myth—but at the same time, Obama's very public refutation of the story is bound to raise its profile. Death panels have now become front-page news... And as several studies in psychology have shown, people often mistake familiarity for veracity. That's why fighting a rumor can sometimes backfire: If we hear something often enough—even if it's in the context of a refutation—we're likely to think it's true.
That's the dilemma Obama faces in trying to debunk the lies surrounding the health care debate. In True Enough, my book published last year, I argued that despite techno-utopians' many high hopes, modern communications technology—talk radio, cable TV, and the Web—have fractured society along ideological lines. Because we can now get our news from sources that reflect our political views—and we can avoid sources that we find suspect—lies and misinformation tend to proliferate and linger. I examined several case studies—the Swift Boaters, the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, and claims that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election—and concluded that it's now easier than ever before for people to live in worlds built entirely of their own facts. We're becoming impervious to rational opposition. Once a substantial minority of the population believes a lie, it achieves the sheen of truth and becomes nearly impossible to debunk.
Now we're seeing that dynamic play out in the health care debate: Myths have taken root, and the White House is having lots of trouble fighting them. Over the last couple of weeks, the administration has tried various efforts to stem the spread of misinformation. It has made videos, sent e-mails, had its spokespeople go on TV, and asked supporters to report "fishy" claims. Now Obama himself is on the stump calling out the lies. Nothing has worked. During the last few years, I've spoken to many experts on the proliferation of rumors. Based on those conversations, I've got some simple advice for Obama: Shut up about the death panels already. Don't keep fighting this rumor. You've lost—and the more time you spend trying to make things better, the worse off you'll be.
Manjoo knows what he's talking about -- True Enough is an excellent primer on the ways in which people resist unwelcome information and the consequences of that resistance for contemporary politics. There's certainly a very good argument that the administration's efforts to correct potent misperceptions like the "death panel" are doomed to failure. And Manjoo is correct that the administration's correction strategy is increasing the salience of the myth, which creates the potential for making the situation worse.
With that said, though, I wouldn't argue that the White House should "shut up" entirely and let these myths circulate unchallenged. A passive response by Obama could encourage administration opponents to promote new misinformation and start the cycle anew. By contrast, I'm hopeful that the elite-based name and shame strategy that I've advocated (see here and here) could potentially reduce the incentives for these sorts of campaigns.
(Disclosure: Manjoo cites my research with Jason Reifler [PDF] on the difficulty of correcting misperceptions.)