John Dickerson points to a new myth that’s been dogging Barack Obama on the campaign trail: the claim that he refused to put his hand over his heart during the pledge of allegiance. E-mail chains making this claim have circulated for the past few weeks, marshaling this photo as evidence. But as Obama has repeatedly said, the photo was taken during the National Anthem, not the pledge of allegiance. (His spokesman sent out several photos of Obama covering his heart for the pledge.) Still, Dickerson writes, audiences keep asking him about it day after day.
It’s just the latest example—along with lapel pin-gate and rumors that Obama is Muslim—of a myth that it doesn’t necessarily help to deny. The Post ’s Shankar Vedantam wrote a fascinating piece a couple months ago about how refuting myths only reinforces them. A University of Michigan study gave people a list of commonly held views and labeled them “true” or “false.” After several days passed, young people remembered about a third of the myths as factual, whereas for older subjects the number was as high as 40 percent. Another study found that over time, people often confuse where they heard the myth first. As a result, the myth-denier sometimes ends up being remembered as the propagator. (An anonymous e-mail chain is particularly pernicious, since it’s not a source that sticks in the mind.)
This doesn’t mean Obama shouldn’t address the issue. He doesn’t want to look like he’s dodging the question. But as Vedentam points out, denials require that you repeat the initial falsehood, and repetition is often enough to further embed a notion. It’s lose-lose. So far, Obama has had to deal with this type of allegation more than the other candidates. Imagine how they would multiply if he actually got the nomination.