Thursday, June 12, 2008

Confronting Rumors

Conventional wisdom, in politics as well as most of life, is that confronting a scurrilous rumor is counter-productive. Doing so just gives a wider airing to the rumor. If a neighbor is whispering about you having an affair, confronting them about it will just spread the rumor to everyone in your neighborhood who hasn't already heard it.

Historically, I think this wisdom held true. But history changes. The internet has magnified the ability of a smear to propagate to the point where the calculus of the conventional wisdom no longer holds true. Viral emails will carry the rumor to all corners of the globe in ways that would have never happened in the age of back-fence gossip. The danger of further spread that comes from confrontation is comparatively minimal.

Both Al Gore and John Kerry suffered in their respective elections because they followed the conventional wisdom. They hoped that, by not confronting certain rumors, they would die a natural death. But the internet is like speed for this crap. Not confronting them seriously hampered their electoral chances.

It looks like Barack Obama is ready to try a different approach. Following in the likes of Snopes, the Obama campaign has set up a sight, Fight The Smears, specifically devoted to giving a full and complete airing of these internet rumors. This sight not only lists the full rumors, but it also links to the evidence that debunks them AND links to the history of the rumors so people can see, where possible, where and with whom they originated.

It probably won't end the rumors. But it should certainly help. If nothing else, it could make confronting the rumors such a common occurance that doing so has little chance of spreading them even further.


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