When Fighting 'Lies' Bites Back

Are right-wing pundits deliberately spreading malicious lies about Barack Obama, and is a terminally clueless public swallowing them? That's the argument of Timothy Egan in Building a Nation of Know-Nothings, a blog post that is now the most frequently e-mailed item on the New York Times web site. Most of the reader comments are a chorus of indignation, but will these sentiments change anybody's mind?  I'm afraid opinion pieces like his have the unintended consequences of reinforcing what they were intended to refute.

As Joe Keohane wrote last month in a fascinating Boston Globe Ideas essay:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It's this: Facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

My friend Gary Alan Fine, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, recently published a book on rumor, so I asked him for his thoughts about the Egan post. They're worth quoting at length -- emphasis is mine:

In my book with Bill Ellis, The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and International Trade Matter, we discuss the "politics of credibility" and the "politics of plausibility." The former refers to how we judge the sources that we rely upon and the later how we judge those truth claims that we come across. Both processes suggest that the means by which we judge information are neither objective nor subjective; in contrast, they are communal and consensual. That is to say, we live in what are alternatively called mnemonic, epistemic, or cognitive communities. We judge newly presented information in context of other information that we and others like us hold without controversy and we judge information based on the reputation or track-record of those who have provided us with information in the past. These are rarely "lies" (i.e., knowingly false), even while they may be false but to groups inherently plausible. Calling them lies is not likely to provoke the "liars" to reconsider. It might make the insulter feel good, but it has little other value.
 
Take the case of whether President Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. Bill Clinton was quite right to emphasize that we must consider what the meaning of is, is (his location for making this philosophical locution was surely not ideal). But what does it mean to say that Obama is a Christian or a Muslim? How institutionally tied must one be; how certain must we be of internal faith? Both views have "facts" ready for the picking. For the former, he claims to be a Christian (and we need to show a certain amount of identity deference), he attended church under the guidance of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and he will occasionally attend other churches, although not on a regular basis. But we can dismiss all this as being impression management if we wish. On the latter, his father was Muslim, he was given a Muslim name, his step-father was a Muslim, he attended an Islamic school in Indonesia, there is a document that indicates that when he was a child he was classified as Muslim, and he goes out of his way to say nice things about Islam (I gather that there is a taped interview from 2007 in which he talks about his love for the sound of the Islamic call to prayer). We can dismiss this in turn as being political mudslinging, if we wish. My point is not to suggest that Obama is a Muslim in the sense of being a practicing member of the faith; that seems clearly incorrect, but that it is easy to make a claim based on plausible facts that he was a Muslim or even that he might feel deep connections to both Islam and Christianity (and thus be Muslim in that particular sense). How one wishes to weigh facts is never cut-and-dry, but is based on what seems plausible and one what others believe. Indeed, one could make the case (which interestingly is not made that often) that Obama "is" an atheist (or an agnostic). After all, his mother was an atheist (so I understand), Obama seems not to be very churched (which after all is part of his justification for not have heard Rev. Wright's more extreme sermons), he joined his church when he needed to provide credibility for himself as a community organizer, and as a law school professor such a lack of affiliation is not unlikely. So, why not make the case that Obama is an unbeliever. The reason is that at the present it doesn't serve any community's interest (although it would certainly play into the view of Obama as an elitist; however, conservatives have gone "all-in" on the Muslim theme). Facts are not orphans, they have sponsors - reputational entrepreneurs who often believe their own claims and believe that these claims are worth investing in. Entrepreneurs need interests in making a claim and resources to make it.
 
To indicate the reality that not every claim will be judged as plausible, take the claim that "Obama is Gay" (and there is such information on the web). But despite truth claims, the claim is seen as fundamentally implausible, given the facts that we already accept about Obama, as well as beliefs about black men, and so that these claims are routinely ignored. (I am not suggesting that they should be attended to, but only that they could be attended to if there are reputational entrepreneurs with interest in doing so).
 
As for Egan, there is much to say, although I will be brief, but it is an odd (although not surprising) column from an author who wants us to be strictly factual, talking about "the flat-earth wing" of the GOP, the woman with "matted hair and a shaky voice," or claims that these "fabrications" could be disproved by a "pre-schooler." Who decides these "facts?" And who constructs their emotional valence (facts often are linked to emotion; that is why they are deployed in arguments). The author, of course, and his epistemic community are the deciders. These texts are not designed for persuasion, but for boundary-building - separating the good us from the bad them (and in this way left and right are far more similar than different).
 

 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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