Blog: Ask Professor Nick

Obama’s Response to Rumors

In some recent interviews with press, I give the Obama campaign a high mark for his handling of false rumors. These include that he is a Muslim, that he swore his oath of Senate office on a Koran, and that he refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag. The rumors are interesting because they capitalize on Obama’s status as a relative newcomer (thus less well-known) to the national stage.

On the positive side of the ledger, he is denying them aggressively (He has stated “I am a committed Christian”; “I pledge allegiance to the flag”, etc.), he has given a context for his denial (“I am personally offended by these remarks”), has explained a motivation for there continued spread (“dirty politics”), he appears calm and believable when he states the rumor is false, and has attempted to enlist the support of people to spread the denial (“If you get this email, reply-all that it is false”). And in his interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network just prior to the South Carolina Democratic Primary, he delivered a point-by-point refutation. So far so good.

The campaign website could enlist and prominently tout more help from trusted 3rd party sources. A March 27 Pew Research Center study found that the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor was believed by only 10% of registered voters, but some subgroups were slightly more likely to believe it (conservative Republicans, conservative Democrats, those who did not attend college, voters from South & Midwest, rural voters, and white evangelical Protestants). P&G, for example, used this strategy effectively when it enlisted the help of Rev. Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham in their “truth kits” and actively distributed them to religious groups. The Obama campaign does have a letter from some religious leaders buried deep on the campaign website; In my opinion, more of these types of letters are needed, especially if the sources are regarded as trustworthy by the above populations. And again, they need to be displayed more prominently; such sources can speak more persuasively than the campaign is able to because of their neutral (or even negative) stakeholder status. McCain employed this tactic effectively when combating innuendo of an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist by having his lawyer—a well-known Democrat—strongly defend his character on national TV.

Some may fear that addressing the rumors “dignifies” them and will give them more credence. The research on rumor refutation doesn’t support that idea. Others may object that those people who believe them are immune to any evidence. Undoubtedly there are some people who are immune to evidence and explanation, but no-one knows how large this group is. So these strategies will be for those who are open to explanation.

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