Let’s say you’re one of the millions of Americans who believe that Barack Obama wants to kill your grandma. You’ve heard various Democrats refuting the claim that the health care bill encourages euthanasia, but you simply don’t believe them—after all, nearly every pundit and health care wonk you’ve seen on Fox News or read about on the Web says that the “death panels” are real and something to fear. Now you see the president on TV claiming otherwise. At a town hall event in Colorado on Saturday, Obama called the euthanasia claim “simply dishonest.” He explained that you’d bought into “misinformation” and that, in reality, the legislation only called for Medicare reimbursements to doctors for providing “end-of-life” counseling. So now that Obama’s out there personally defending himself, do you believe him?
Of course you don’t. Here’s a man you suspect of the worst possible motives—you think he’s contemplating putting old people out to pasture in order to realize his dream of socialized medicine. You’re not going to change your mind just because he says the facts prove otherwise.
OK, so maybe Obama’s not trying to convince people who already hold a firm opinion about his health care plan. Instead he’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. They’re on the lips of every politician and every late-night host, a trending topic on Twitter and the blogs. The phrase—like government takeover or socialized medicine—is now one of the chief buzzwords of the health care debate. 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.
I understand this is hard medicine to swallow. Whatever you think about health care reform, it’s hard to abide complete fabrications. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the idea that Obama’s proposals create any mechanism to send old people to an early grave. Lots of other claims about the administration’s health care plan are also patently false—see this roundup by the nonpartisan Politifact that thoroughly debunks a laundry list of lies that have been going around through chain e-mails. Responding to lies seems only natural. How could the White House stand by in silence while opponents make outlandish claims?
But there are two problems with trying to correct misinformation. First, once people buy into a set of facts, they’re unlikely to change their minds, even if presented with evidence to the contrary. In True Enough, I describe a famous study (PDF) by psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper about people who hold rigid views on the death penalty. The researchers asked both fierce supporters and opponents of capital punishment to look at a stack of empirical studies that presented a mixed picture of the death penalty—some studies indicated that capital punishment deterred crime, while others suggested it didn’t. After looking at the data, a rational person would have moderated her view of the death penalty—after all, the facts seemed to indicate that it was hard to know what effect capital punishment had on crime.
But people with extreme views on the issue had a different reaction: When shown data that suggested they were wrong, they concluded that the data was in some way faulty—and they became even more fixed in their original ideas. Thus after looking at research that presented a mixed picture on the death penalty, activists on each side became more polarized. More recent research seems to confirm this view; studies have shown that when people are presented with an unassailable correction of misinformation, they tend to believe the myths even more fervently. (One study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed that conservatives are more likely than liberals to respond this way.)
The other problem with fighting misinformation is that you risk spreading the myths beyond the groups of people who already believe it. We get a lot of our news these days through social networks—not just online social networks like Facebook but networks of friends, family, and co-workers. The mainstream is drying up. Fewer and fewer people watch network news or read newspapers, and instead we indulge in nonobjective sources like cable news, talk radio, and the political blogosphere. When rumors spread virally, they tend to stay in select circles. For instance, polls showed that during last year’s presidential campaign, only a few demographic groups believed the claim that Obama was secretly a Muslim. The rumor didn’t really hurt Obama because the claim only took root with people who were never going to vote for him in the first place.
In taking on these death panel rumors, the Obama people are pushing them beyond these cloistered networks. The White House has put out a series of bland videos in which buttoned-down wonks calmly refute misperceptions about health care. The administration wants people to send the clips around as a truth-squadding viral chain message. Guess who’s going to do that? People who already support health care legislation. And who are they going to send the clips to? Their friends—other people who already support health care legislation. The upshot: A whole lot of people who didn’t know about the rumors are now getting schooled in them.
So if fighting rumors directly is a bad idea, what should Obama do? He should talk to his opponents. One consequence of our fractured media is that it has become easy to dehumanize our political opponents. When I spoke to rumor experts about the Obama-is-a-Muslim myth last year, some gave Obama high points for an interview he granted with the Christian Broadcasting Network. The appearance worked because he’d taken his message to people most likely to believe the rumor, and he’d answered their questions directly and honestly. He didn’t simply dismiss the rumors as lies; instead, he talked about his churchly ways and tried to show why he should be considered worthy of their trust. (This was before the Rev. Wright controversy.)
That appearance provides a template for how he can handle health care rumors—he should go to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly and answer all their questions. He can address the death panel rumor if asked about it, but he shouldn’t make that the main thrust of his argument. Instead, he should aim merely to get his opponents to listen to him. If he can at least come off as a human being, he might be able to convince even the biggest Obama haters that he’s not out to kill granny.