How To Fight A Rumor: Talk About It
The experts agree. Obama’s approach to rumor after rumor after rumor is working because it’s the right way to combat them. Because instead of not dignifying the rumor with a response, the Obama campaign has talked openly about them and presented the truth as a viable alternative.
Too bad it still isn’t working in some circles.
Rumors, it turns out, are driven by real curiosity and the desire to know more information. Even negative rumors aren’t just scurrilous or prurient – they often serve as glue for people’s social networks. And although it seems counterintuitive, these facts about rumor suggest that, often, the best way to help stem a rumor is to spread it. The idea of “not dignifying a rumor with a response” reflects a deep misunderstanding of what rumors are, how they are fueled, and what purposes they serve in society. […]
When it comes to rumors about people rather than events, psychologists have found that we pay especially close attention to rumors about powerful people and their moral failings. Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who studies the evolutionary roots of gossip, has found that we’re particularly likely to spread negative rumors about “high-status” individuals, whether they’re our bosses, professors, or celebrities.
Our behavior, McAndrew suggests, evolved in an environment in which information about others was crucially important. Back when humans lived in small groups, he theorizes, information about those higher than us on the totem pole – especially information about their weaknesses – would have been hugely valuable, and the only source we had for such information was other people. (McAndrew’s work, much of which focuses on our obsession with celebrity culture, suggests our brains aren’t terribly adept at distinguishing people who are “actually” important from people who simply receive a lot of attention.)
So how’s Obama doing?
Obama gets relatively high marks, says DiFonzo: The candidate’s website, fightthesmears.com, succeeds by “denying [the rumors] aggressively” and providing “a context for his denial.” Obama could, however, create even more credible rebuttals by having them backed up by trusted third-party sources, such as religious leaders.
McCain gets high marks as well…
Pratkanis says the McCain campaign has handled the Palin rumors well, too. In the wake of the story about Palin’s child, “McCain did the stealing thunder,” he says. By coming out and immediately laying the facts on the table, he was able to short-circuit the coverup theories, and reroute the conversation to the more easily managed topic of Bristol’s pregnancy.
Still, I wonder what kind of shape McCain’s campaign would be in if he had to fight the kind of rumors Obama has had to deal with.