Nasty Rumors: Deny or Ignore?

It’s a perennial problem for political campaigns: How do you tamp down scurrilous rumors without appearing to dignify them?

In Barack Obama’s case, the strategy has been direct and forceful denial, with some jokes mixed in. At Wednesday’s AIPAC conference, Obama addressed the rumors, mostly propagated over the Web, that he is a Muslim: “I want to say that I know some provocative e-mails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country,” Obama said. “They’re filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president. And all I want to say is—let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty scary.”

Yesterday he was forced to deny a new rumor about Michelle Obama supposedly using a derogatory word to refer to white people—a claim for which there’s no evidence but that has picked up steam on blogs. When a reporter for McClatchy asked him about it, Obama bristled: “Frankly, my hope is people don’t play this game,” he said. “It is a destructive aspect of our politics. Simply because something appears in an e-mail, that should lend it no more credence than if you heard it on the corner. Presumably the job of the press is to not to go around and spread scurrilous rumors like this until there is actually anything, an iota, of substance or evidence that would substantiate it.”

Compare that with John Edwards, who did his best not to address the National Enquirer report that he had fathered a child with a former campaign worker. When a mainstream reporter asked him about it, Edwards’ gave a curt response—”Tabloid trash, completely false”—and moved on. He kept the quote short and noncontextualized, presumably to make it harder for the networks to report it. Obama, by contrast, spoke in full paragraphs, making it practically impossible not to report it.

The decision to address the rumors rather than to ignore them is deliberate. It suggests an optimistic view of Americans—a belief that truth always wins out. “The American people are I think smarter than folks give them credit for,” Obama said in response to a question about the e-mail campaign at a debate in January. But that might be overly generous. News reports during the final primaries found the Muslim rumors have penetrated deep into voters’ consciousness. In one video , a reporter tries to reassure a Hillary supporter that Obama says he’s not a Muslim. “I know he does,” the woman says. She just doesn’t believe him.

In cases like that, denial is useless. Not only because some voters are determined to believe the rumors, but because repetition will only strengthen their conviction. Psychological studies have shown that denying false information can contribute to its resiliency. The Washington Post ‘s Shankar Vedantam wrote last year that “once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.” Barack, meet hard place.