The Obama campaign, seeking to combat the spurious rumors that run amok online, has launched a campaign site named Fight The Smears, dedicated to the debunking of false claims and keeping the public truthfully informed. The effort stems from the Obama campaign's determination to avoid the sort of "swift boating" that befell the Kerry campaign.
But is this website going to work? Farhad Manjoo, who writes the "Machinist" column for Salon, has doubts, and builds an effective case against the effort, suggesting that it may end up backfiring on Obama.
In March, as part of a New York Times Magazine article on the science behind myth busting, I spoke to several rumor experts about Obama's efforts to fight the Muslim claim. In politics, conventional wisdom holds that the best way to neutralize a whisper campaign is to ignore it. The experts thought this was a bad plan, and they praised Obama's camp for aggressively pushing back at the Muslim rumor every time it's popped up in the news.
Strangely, though, Fight the Smears represents a step backward from many of the campaign's previous get-out-the-truth efforts. The site presents fewer facts to back up its truths than did facthcheck.barackobama.com, the comprehensive truth-squad Web site that the campaign launched last November (that site brimmed with links to sources debunking the Muslim claim).
What's worse, Fight the Smears violates a cardinal rule of rumor-debunking: When you're fighting a lie, don't repeat it.
To Manjoo, the flaws are part format, part strategy. Fight The Smears, as it is set up, is a list of entries that first present the smear, and then provide a link that leads to the debunking of the rumor. This is problematic on two fronts: first, the lie is repeated, in its entirety, right on the page; and second, the truth requires the user to make an additional effort to chase down the truth. So the website is actually doing a better job perpetuating the lies. But even if the campaign made an effort to "lay bare the truth," as it were, Manjoo suggests that it still may be of no help:
According to Norbert Schwarz, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, this presentation style -- showing the lie first, then countering it with fact -- often causes people to later misremember the lie as true.
Last year Schwarz and his colleagues Ian Skurnik and Carolyn Yoon showed people a similar "facts vs. myths" flier that the Centers for Disease Control had produced to set people straight on various false claims regarding the flu vaccine. The flier was formatted in the same way as Obama's anti-smear site: First it presented a myth about the flu vaccine -- for instance, that only older people should be vaccinated -- and then countered the myth with a set of facts (that young people with specific health conditions might need also need the vaccine).
Just after reading the flier, people easily remembered which statements about the flu vaccine were true and which were false. But when tested 30 minutes later, "their judgments showed a systematic error pattern: They now misidentified 15 percent of the myths as true," the researchers found.
Beyond this flaw in format is a flaw in the strategy - namely that the people who are most likely to visit Fight The Smears are the ones who are engaged enough in the process to know the truth anyway, and who aren't likely to "virally" spread the truth beyond a similarly engaged set of peers:
Polls show that belief in the Muslim rumor is confined to a few select demographic groups: Conservative Republicans, rural voters, and people without college degrees are most likely to think Obama is Muslim. Rumor researchers say that the best way to fight a myth is to take your refutation to the social groups who believe it; this way, you minimize the possibility of introducing the lie to people who hadn't heard it in the first place.
Fight the Smears turns that design on its head. It pushes the story to people who know the truth in the hopes that they have at least a few misguided friends who need to be saved.
So, Slate's Christopher Beam, believing that "rather than restate untruths about Obama, the campaign would do better to start some rumors of its own," has provided Obama fans with a viral email of their own, excerpted below:
Subject: WHO IS BARACK OBAMA?
There are many things people do not know about BARACK OBAMA. It is every American's duty to read this message and pass it along to all of their friends and loved ones.
Barack Obama wears a FLAG PIN at all times. Even in the shower.
Barack Obama says the PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE every time he sees an American flag. He also ends every sentence by saying, "WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL." Click here for video of Obama quietly mouthing the PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE in his sleep.
Barack Obama is a PATRIOTIC AMERICAN. He has one HAND over his HEART at all times. He occasionally switches when one arm gets tired, which is almost never because he is STRONG.
Barack Obama has the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE tattooed on his stomach. It's upside-down, so he can read it while doing sit-ups.
Barack Obama is a DEVOUT CHRISTIAN. His favorite book is the BIBLE, which he has memorized. His name means HE WHO LOVES JESUS in the ancient language of Aramaic. He is PROUD that Jesus was an American.
Barack Obama goes to church every morning. He goes to church every afternoon. He goes to church every evening. He is IN CHURCH RIGHT NOW.
Interestingly, Manjoo's analysis makes one wonder if the Obama campaign couldn't use the inherent flaws of Fight The Smears to run a neat bit of political jujitsu by expanding this effort to include spurious rumors about John McCain. It could have the advantage of reinforcing Obama's commitment to "a different sort of politics" while harnessing all of the fallacies that Manjoo makes note of to undermine his opponent. Chances are, engaging both the McCain and Obama peer groups simultaneously would end up redounding to no one's benefit, but it could give web-users such an aversion to political rumors that the practice could be ended entirely. Still, in lieu of that, Beam's solution at least lends a needed dose of comic absurdity.