Q&A: How to Combat Gossip

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Over the course of his presidential campaign, there have been a lot of rumors spread about Obama's religious background. To what extent might they affect his candidacy?

In a tight election, such rumors might make a meaningful difference, especially for those people who have been exposed to the rumors multiple times among their social network, have not received a refutation, and are not that involved in the political process.

So, how would you assess Obama's response, establishing a site to debunk myths?

Assuming that the rumors surrounding Obama are completely false, the Obama campaign's approach is overall appropriate and effective, though I think more could be done. Specifically, the campaign could tout credible third-party sources more strongly (for example, enlisting the help of a leading conservative in stating that Obama is not and never has been Muslim).

The campaign's rumor-rebutting website could enlist and prominently tout more help from trusted third-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 the South and Midwest, rural voters, and white evangelical Protestants).

The Obama campaign does have a letter from some religious leaders buried deep on the campaign site. 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.

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