Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fighting or Spreading the Smears?

There are two schools of thought about how a political candidate should respond to false rumors and smears. One school of thought says to ignore them---that rebutting them just gives them greater play. Call this the "John Kerry" approach. A second school of thought says you have to get out in front of the story (even if it turns out to have more than a grain of truth to it). Call this the "Bill Clinton" approach. Given Kerry's defeat and Clinton's two victories in national elections, one might think that the Clinton approach is clearly superior. And so the Obama campaign has apparently concluded. In a section of the Obama campaign website called "Fight the Smears," one can find "smears" circulated by Obama political enemies and "the truth," showing the smears to be false.

This is a highly risky strategy. Psychological studies show that repetition of a story---even for the purpose of rebutting that story---will tend to lead people to remember the story as true. In other words, Kerry may have been right to ignore the Swift Boat Veterans; engaging with them would have given even greater play to their story; and even if the story were accompanied by Kerry denials and denials by objective observers, the damage would have been done (even more than it was). Likewise for Obama, fighting the smears may only give them greater play.

This suggests that one can do reputational damage simply by telling an innocent truth.
Suppose, for example, that an Obama supporter wanted to help Obama win the general election. If rebutting false stories about Obama is counter-productive, then it might be productive to tarnish Senator McCain's reputation by rebutting false statements about him. (It might be even more effective to spread the false statements without the rebuttals, but that would be sleazy.) Suppose one were to post on a blog something like the following:

1) No one should pay any attention to any rumors, if any such rumors even exist, that Senator McCain co-sponsored legislation to revoke statehood for Florida and Ohio. McCain, who is from Arizona, did not try to harm millions of Americans living in Florida and Ohio. There is no reason to think that McCain is an enemy of Florida and Ohio. Or Colorado or Virginia.

2) There is absolutely no truth to the story that Senator McCain used to bite the heads off of live bats as an homage to Ozzy Osbourne. Senator McCain was never into Black Sabbath. He is in fact an ABBA fan who has never bitten the head off of a bat. Really. McCain does not bite the heads off of bats. Or any other living creatures. So far as we know.

3) Anybody who says that Senator McCain supported normalizing relations with Vietnam because he is secretly a communist is not telling the truth. McCain is not a communist. Let me repeat that. Is McCain a communist? No. No communist he. McCain, that is. The one who is definitely not a communist. McCain.

Now, if such absolutely true denials of clearly false rumors were to circulate on a blog with about a thousand daily readers, that wouldn't do much damage. But suppose they were then sent around by email to spread "virally." That could be really bad for the McCain campaign. I'm just saying.


Posted by Mike Dorf


Caleb said...

Of course, as we all know, the Obama campaign is about bringing change and hope to D.C. and is therefore above all attempts to smear other campaigns. And certainly Obama supporters who had blogs would never try to surreptitiously smear other campaigns. All rumours of this type - that certain Obama-supporting blogs are attempting to smear the McCain campaign - are clearly false.


P.S. More seriously, I occasionally wonder what effect Stephen Colbert's ongoing gag about Obama being a "secret Muslim" has.

Unknown said...

In response to the attacks on Michelle Obama, some people have claimed that John McCain's second wife, Cindy, spent time in jail for stealing drugs from the charity she founded in order to feed her habit.

In fact, she was never prosecuted.

She instead ran a savvy smear campaign against the whistleblower who brought her stealing to light, and received lenient treatment from the DEA due to her wealth and connections.

The information at the links I provide should clear up any misunderstanding. Remember: it is not true that John McCain's second wife went to jail for stealing drugs from her charity.

Unknown said...

Prof Dorf--

Something you might be interested in. Look at the WaPo-ABC news poll data out today. Scroll down to Q 13 (about halfway down). Looks like the public disagrees with Boumediene, 61-34.

David Crowley said...

It might be even more effective to spread the false statements without the rebuttals, but that would be sleazy.

I know this post is meant to be toungue in cheek, but I wonder if there are people who really think it would be meaningfully sleazier to spread false lies without a perfunctory rebuttal than with one. (E.g., "McCain is a Martian" vs. McCain is rumored to be a Martian. Not true."). If the psychological studies are correct and repetition does indeed have negative reputational consequences for the subject of the rebutted rumors, then general rumor rebuttals seem pretty sleazy too---even more so because the rebuttals give the rebutter the aura of being gracious and noble.

egarber said...

I'm weighing in as a supporter of Obama's decision, for at least the following reasons:

1. With such extensive email proliferation, the odds are that an unwanted impression has already saturated the public's thinking to a significant degree by the time the campaign finds out. So the risk that replying will cause it to sink in more is probably low.

2. Left unanswered, some or many people will think the candidate isn't answering because he knows it's true. Consider: why didn't professor Dorf reply when somebody said he doesn't value history at all when it comes to constitutional interpretation? That must mean he basically agrees, if he doesn't feel the need to say otherwise.

3. Anecdotally, I was fighting off the phony Muslim story all over the place when those emails were breeding across the country. And one thing I heard a few times was, "well, he hasn't denied it." How very nice it would be to have the smears site link handy to blast back at these bozos.

4. If the source and those reinforcing the rumor can be outed as part of Obama's effort, she / he can be ridiculed publicly -- potentially creating a chilling effect that might preclude other smears from taking hold.

5. As long as the candidate himself isn't joining in, it won't cause any distractions. This is a good task for the grassroots army and guys like Kerry (who signed on to help when he endorsed Barack)

Hamiltwan said...

Would disputing a fact most people would consider trivial (did McCain think he was going to be promoted to Admiral when he left the navy to enter politics) as an excuse to attack McCain's military record qualify?


(Note: I'm not a McCain supporter, I just thought this was a very clever piece of propaganda)

Won Joon Choe said...

Prof. Dorf,

Could you refer me to some of the literature on "psychological studies show that repetition of a story---even for the purpose of rebutting that story---will tend to lead people to remember the story as true"?

I am absolutely fascinated by this problem, because I am a citizen of a country where blatant falsehoods propagated by immensely-popular websites (i.e., the laughable canard that "Mad Cow Disease" is ubiquitous among American cattle, and that Koreans are genetically pre-disposed to getting the said condition) may actually bring down a democratic government in the short-term and make it ungovernable in the long-run.

I would also think that what is happening in South Korea is not completely irrelevant to the United States, though the South Korean body politics indeed has very unusual cultural peculiarities.

Anonymous said...

Senator Obama is NOT a Dirty Muslim!

"What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge," says Mr. Obama, while denouncing statements of him being a Muslim as a smear. Why is the presidential candidate who claims to be religiously inclusive is treating the word "Muslim" as an insult? Apparently, it is OK for Mr. Obama to be associated with terrorists like William Ayers or racists like Jeremiah Wright, but God forbid somebody would call him a Muslim! No, he won't stand for that kind of smear! We admit that most terrorists are Muslims, but most Muslims are not terrorists and the statement on Mr. Obama's website is insulting to hundreds of millions of people.

How could a man who discards his family heritage in favor of political expediency be even considered for presidency of the United States? Where are all the so-called "Islamic civil rights groups" like CAIR, MPAC, ISNA, MAS, etc. who are quick to defend every Islamic terrorist, but are silent when Muslims in general are being denigrated? Would Mr. Obama have the same reaction if someone claimed that he was raised as a Jew? We sincerely doubt that.

Muslims Against Sharia demand immediate removal of "SMEAR: Barack Obama is a Muslim" statement from the official Barack Obama's website as well as an apology for giving the word "Muslim" a negative connotation.


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