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