How to kill those death panel rumors: Just shut up about them.

How to fix health policy.
Aug. 17 2009 5:37 PM

How To Kill Those Death Panel Rumors

Just shut up about them.

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But there are two problems with trying to correct misinformation. First, once people buy into a set of facts, they're unlikely to change their minds, even if presented with evidence to the contrary. In True Enough, I describe a famous study (PDF) by psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper about people who hold rigid views on the death penalty. The researchers asked both fierce supporters and opponents of capital punishment to look at a stack of empirical studies that presented a mixed picture of the death penalty—some studies indicated that capital punishment deterred crime, while others suggested it didn't. After looking at the data, a rational person would have moderated her view of the death penalty—after all, the facts seemed to indicate that it was hard to know what effect capital punishment had on crime.

But people with extreme views on the issue had a different reaction: When shown data that suggested they were wrong, they concluded that the data was in some way faulty—and they became even more fixed in their original ideas. Thus after looking at research that presented a mixed picture on the death penalty, activists on each side became more polarized. More recent research seems to confirm this view; studies have shown that when people are presented with an unassailable correction of misinformation, they tend to believe the myths even more fervently. (One study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed that conservatives are more likely than liberals to respond this way.)

The other problem with fighting misinformation is that you risk spreading the myths beyond the groups of people who already believe it. We get a lot of our news these days through social networks—not just online social networks like Facebook but networks of friends, family, and co-workers. The mainstream is drying up. Fewer and fewer people watch network news or read newspapers, and instead we indulge in nonobjective sources like cable news, talk radio, and the political blogosphere. When rumors spread virally, they tend to stay in select circles. For instance, polls showed that during last year's presidential campaign, only a few demographic groups believed the claim that Obama was secretly a Muslim. The rumor didn't really hurt Obama because the claim only took root with people who were never going to vote for him in the first place.

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In taking on these death panel rumors, the Obama people are pushing them beyond these cloistered networks. The White House has put out a series of bland videos in which buttoned-down wonks calmly refute misperceptions about health care. The administration wants people to send the clips around as a truth-squadding viral chain message. Guess who's going to do that? People who already support health care legislation. And who are they going to send the clips to? Their friends—other people who already support health care legislation. The upshot: A whole lot of people who didn't know about the rumors are now getting schooled in them.

So if fighting rumors directly is a bad idea, what should Obama do? He should talk to his opponents. One consequence of our fractured media is that it has become easy to dehumanize our political opponents. When I spoke to rumor experts about the Obama-is-a-Muslim myth last year, some gave Obama high points for an interview he granted with the Christian Broadcasting Network. The appearance worked because he'd taken his message to people most likely to believe the rumor, and he'd answered their questions directly and honestly. He didn't simply dismiss the rumors as lies; instead, he talked about his churchly ways and tried to show why he should be considered worthy of their trust. (This was before the Rev. Wright controversy.)

That appearance provides a template for how he can handle health care rumors—he should go to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly and answer all their questions. He can address the death panel rumor if asked about it, but he shouldn't make that the main thrust of his argument. Instead, he should aim merely to get his opponents to listen to him. If he can at least come off as a human being, he might be able to convince even the biggest Obama haters that he's not out to kill granny.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.