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November 28, 2007

Political Science Abstract of the Day: Smear Me Edition

John Bullock:

Much work on political persuasion maintains that people are influenced by information that they believe and not by information that they don’t. By this view, false beliefs have no power if they are known to be false. This helps to explain frequent efforts to change voters’ attitudes by exposing them to relevant facts. But findings from social psychology suggest that this view requires modification: sometimes, false beliefs influence people’s attitudes even after they are understood to be false. In a trio of experiments, I demonstrate that the effect is present in people’s thinking about politics and amplified by party identification. I conclude by elaborating the consequences for theories of belief updating and strategic political communication.

Over at the Monkey Cage, David Park translates a bit. "If a Republican were to hear a negative story about a Democratic candidate," he writes, "his impression of the Democratic candidate becomes worse. However, when it is revealed that the information was false, his opinion of the Democratic candidate does not return to its initial state, instead his belief lies somewhere between the initial state and the false state."

So let's be clear on how this works: Bob the Republican gets an e-mail saying Barack Obama is a Muslim, spent his early years in madrassas, and had been cynically implying a Christian faith in order facilitate his campaign. Bob takes from this that Obama is untrustworthy, possibly disloyal, and probably a bit dangerous. Then, Bob's watching the news, and they cut to a segment on this smear, showing it to be a heap of falsehoods and racist insinuations. Bob stops believing in the smear, but is still left with the vestigial impression that Obama is untrustworthy, etc. The damage remains, even as the causal facts are erased.

The implications, of course, are enormous. When a particularly loathsome campaign is launched, or particularly untrue fliers distributed, simply beating back the argument in the media is not nearly enough. The damage, once done, is done, finished, absorbed. What sort of strategy that militates towards -- save, maybe, for a constant, ceaseless, offense -- is a bit hard to divine, but it's certainly depressing, and it suggests that a campaign unwilling to attack, but willing to counterattack, runs at a severe disadvantage.

November 28, 2007 | Permalink


From the AP. Wonder if this news story about apparently faked sets of racist, sexist fliers in IOWA for John Edwards is at all relevant?

Police confiscate racist, sexist fliers November 27, 2007 19:18 EST

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Authorities have confiscated a handful of fliers containing racist and sexist slurs about presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

Police say the fliers also urge support for Democratic rival John Edwards.

Story County sheriff's officials say two fliers were found yesterday in the town of Slater and one on the Iowa State University campus in Ames.

The crude, hand-lettered fliers seek support for Edwards, who is referred to as -- quote -- "the white man." The fliers use epithets to describe Clinton and Obama.

Officials say there was no evidence that anyone associated with the Edwards campaign was responsible for the fliers. Police are not investigating the incident as a criminal matter because the fliers didn't violate the law.


Posted by: El Cid | Nov 28, 2007 10:11:47 AM

I think this is Hillary's greatest problem. After so many years of constant right-wing demonization, a lot of people hate her--even if they don't know why. My mother, for instance, cannot stand her, but can't explain exactly what it is she dislikes.

Posted by: Jared | Nov 28, 2007 10:12:18 AM

Heck, you had the husbands of an outgoing Australian MP and her preferred successor distributing fliers ostensibly from a Muslim organisation praising the Labor Party for its support of terrorists.

That particular ratfuck was much less sophisticated than GOP standard practice, and the preferred successor got her arse kicked in the election.

It should also be noted, though, that the GOP has shown expertise at countering attacks: i.e. the Rovian reverse ratfuck of bugging your own office, or turning a story on Bush's well-established National Guard absenteeism into 'Rathergate', all with the aid by curiously well-briefed Freepers with strong party connections.

That's to say, were it to be discovered that a GOP candidate were a habitual goatfucker, the reporter uncovering it would likely be run out of his/her job for misidentifying the sex of the goats.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Nov 28, 2007 10:19:39 AM

There's nothing depressing about a strategy of attack. That's what an opposition party should be doing. Oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them - remember? - so the opposition should take every opportunity to point out the government's bad points.

Posted by: ajay | Nov 28, 2007 10:26:15 AM

There's nothing depressing about a strategy of attack...the opposition should take every opportunity to point out the government's bad points.

This is not what the post is referring to. It mentions the damage done by false attacks. Pointing out the actual weaknesses of candidates is to be expected, but the kind of smearing that Ezra is talking about is very different. You are advocating an "all's fair in love and politics" approach, or you have misinterpreted the point of the post.

Posted by: jmack | Nov 28, 2007 10:41:07 AM

Fortunately, the case pseudonomous Tar Heel raises actually contributed to Howard's loss, since, I dunno, maybe Australians still retain some modicum of respect for such matters. So there are occasional upsides.

Posted by: El Cid | Nov 28, 2007 10:42:52 AM


i think in the case of hillary clinton, there are very glaring reasons why people dont like her.
...for instance, yesterday, she was asked, i think, by katie couric, how she would feel if she didnt win.
....hillary seemed incredulous for the moment.
she said something to the effect of..."i am going to win." but with complete certainty.
to me, there was something disturbing in her response.... presupposing that the universe will work out according to your plan.
the universe is capable of playing many unforseen tricks. there are twists of fate that can blindside us at any moment. we are all frail and not invincible.
only hubris believes we can tame the universe to our wishes. there has to be a place of frailty from which leadership originates, i think.

this is not about leadership or winningness. this is even the belief that if you decide you want something badly enough, you can manipulate the world and all things in it to achieve your end.
bush does the same thing.there is something in that arrogance that affects clarity, compassion and humanness.
i think people sense this, and that is what they dont like.
or maybe i am just speaking for myself.

Posted by: jacqueline | Nov 28, 2007 11:08:15 AM

Seems like you, John Bullock, and David Park have useda an awful lot of words to re-explain the Right Wing Noise Machine: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0706,tomorrow,75758,9.html

What else have you learned during your visit to our planet?

Posted by: Jack the Misanthrope | Nov 28, 2007 11:10:34 AM


Thanks for the link to the "This Modern World" cartoon. A perfect description of the sh*tstorm surrounding the recent Novak "story". Everyone reported on how each campaign reacted to Novak's ghost story, with both candidates ending up looking like morons and the repugs cackling over the whole mess.

Posted by: CParis | Nov 28, 2007 11:28:22 AM

Incidentally, this is one reason why MoveOn's "General Betray Us" ad was such a masterstroke, even though a lot of liberals at the time denounced it as stupid and said that it provided Republicans with a useful distraction.

People by and large might have disapproved of the ad, but the GOP made such a big deal about it, that a lot of people probably can't hear the name "Petraeus" without thinking of "Betray Us," which inhibits the Republicans' ability to use him as a hobbyhorse.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 28, 2007 11:31:02 AM

I think the implication for this is also significant for the current practice of journalism even beyond political campaigns. Our current system is to print whatever you can to meet a tight deadline, regardless of fact checking. If something is revealed to be incorrect later, a retraction or correction is issued. In the rapid-fire 24-hour news cycle, this can allow for a long period of significant misreporting on stories before deeper investigation corrects (or even corroborates) the initial report.

We've always known this is poor journalism, but if you can prove that there is actual measurable harm from incorrect reporting, a decent case could be made for reform of the whole industry (which won't happen, of course).

Posted by: Matt H | Nov 28, 2007 12:13:30 PM

This is why the Dems need to learn to attack. They can't win without doing this.

Posted by: beckya57 | Nov 28, 2007 12:30:08 PM


I look at HRC's response the way I might a coach's or a player's response when asked about their chances of winning. The only time someone equivocates about winning is when he/she is trying to soft sell his/her opponent. Maybe it is hubris on her part, but I think she intends it to be seen as the confidence of a leader. I agree with you that many people interpret it as arrogance, but I wonder if people's negative reaction to that confidence is related to her gender.

BTW, I also agree that I think that leadership does not have to come from this overt sense of confidence; a little humility can go a long way when it comes to leading people.

Posted by: jmack | Nov 28, 2007 1:47:31 PM

So..when one of those Rovian Swift-Boat things springs
into promulgation morphing then into half-truth--
The response itself must be swift and as overwhelming as can be.

We now have the capability both to know (blogosphere)
AND to react.

Against the inertial massivity of the establishment/corporate media
such a response is still small, but voices can chorus.
It's our job.

No slur Ezra...Glenn G is doing this best, I think.

Posted by: has_te | Nov 28, 2007 2:26:22 PM

In _The Political Brain_, Drew Westen sort of addresses this phenomenon. Extrapolating from what he said, it seems to me that the appropriate response to a smear is to mount an emotionally compelling counterattack on the character of a person who would run a dishonest smear campaign. You can't undo all of the damage the smear did, but you can make it hurt the smearer _more_ than it hurt you.

If the Obama campaign simply disproves the allegations, Obama still suffers a net loss. On the other hand, if he successfully argues that not only are the allegations untrue, but the people spreading them are racist bigoted liars who are trying to encourage racism among the electorate and know that they're so unpopular that they have to lie in order to have a chance at winning the election, he can turn the dishonest smear into a pretty damning attack on the character of his opponents. If the perception of the smearers is more damaged than the perception of Obama, then Obama still comes out ahead. Applied consistently, this should drive down the amount of dishonest smearing, because the smear artists will generally come out behind.

Posted by: Galen | Nov 28, 2007 3:23:26 PM

I think the fallacy here - and really, is there anything in Ezra's post that's surprising? - is the notion that "Bob the Republican" was ever really serious about considering Obama; now, after hearing some negative stories about Obama, he's got a bad impression, but let's also point out that when Bob heard "Obama" and "Democrat" he was already presupposing a laundry list of positions and making preordained judgments, most likely. Which is to say Bob's pump was primed to receive negative information about Obama well before that news about the madrasa, true or not. And lest we think we're above those presuppositions - though Jacqueline, I think, already makes the point about Hillary Clinton - when you say "Mike Huckabee" and "religious right", a huge chunk of liberal people immediately started from a negative impression. If the point here is we should all keep an open mind, well, yes, I've thought that all along. I'm also enough of a realist to admit mnost people don't. And we're just going to have to deal with that reality. Wishing, or rationalizing, won't really undo a lot of these perceptions and preconceived notions. But before we get too cynical, I think we should also note that minds can be changed and opened when you don't let the preconceived notions tell the story; and in some ways, I think Obama does a good job at this, and tends to let the juvenalia of the right - the stuff about his middle name being "Hussein", never mind madrasas and the nonsense about that pledge picture - not take up too much of his time. It's probably not worth it for him, or for the rest of us, to get dragged down into it.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 28, 2007 4:07:43 PM

"But before we get too cynical, I think we should also note that minds can be changed and opened when you don't let the preconceived notions tell the story..."

Isn't this more likely to be true with progressives than with conservatives? We hear of progressives saying "Huckabee/Guiliani/Romney doesn't seem so bad", especially when compared to other GOP candidates. But all of the Dem candidates are routinely condemned by conservatives.

Posted by: CParis | Nov 28, 2007 4:52:25 PM

Thank you.
Very smart analysis.

A better commenter than I could adequately connect the dots from this post to Athenae's post re: the other Klein's (y'know, Joe) latest RW noise machinism.

Actually, I am surprised JK has yet to blame left-wing extremists .

Posted by: bartkid | Nov 28, 2007 5:02:53 PM

Shorter, intuitive version: Negative campaigning works.

Posted by: Paul | Nov 28, 2007 8:24:00 PM

CParis - In all three cases you mention, I've found that the "not so bad" people are people who don't necessarily know all that much about one or all of the three; most any luberal New Yorker will tell you Giuliani is that bad and worse, and most Mass residents aren't fooled by Romney (at least, not any more). I would guess similar things about Arkansans (one reason I think the Clintons might be secretly glad if it's Huckabee). Of the three, I think Huckabee has been most successful at ignoring his negatives, but that's partly a function of his not being all that well known or scrutinized until the past couple of weeks. And the rumblings - about corruption and finances - could amount to something. But what do I know? I'm predisposed to see bad in the guy. :)

Posted by: weboy | Nov 28, 2007 10:13:44 PM

Galen hit the nail on the head here. The only response to the irreversible effects of ratfucking is to poison the well and destroy the character of the person/party/organization of its origin. I would go so far as to say to generalize such attribution to “the opposition” at large, hopefully making such tactics nuclear waste. The key would be in how you do it. I think the reversed attribution has to be immediately followed by a demonstration, NOT just a statement, of the recipient’s own strength of character and ethics. Key words: strength and character. Everybody knows, everybody, that ratfucking is weak and pathetic. But in this country that knowledge is not enough. In fact, ratfucking is a challenge, like hazing or boot camp, which you can’t just tolerate or ignore. You have to play the game, AND show yourself bigger than the game. Thus an obviating counter example is needed, a demonstration of maturity if you will. But this “maturity” has to smack down the “immaturity” of the attack, and expose all associated (a decision which, after all, is the discretion of the attackee) as the brittle emotional retards they are. Ratfucking, then, really needs to be seen as a gift, one that has immense potential to carpetbomb the deliverers.

And while I agree in theory with the lament that we shouldn’t have to deal with slimeball crap like this, never mind having it as a central component of Thuglican operations, until there is a structural shift we’re stuck with it. Politics in this country has never left the turn of the 20th century; it’s a battle royale, and no matter what you’re going to take some serious hits. But you have to fight; there is no choice, and until the Dems learn to meld this functional, behavioral knowledge with the twee consultant focus group crap they seem unable to tear themselves from they will never hold the majority implicated by the truly progressive sentiments of this country.

Posted by: Conrad's Ghost | Nov 29, 2007 10:33:40 AM

May I suggest that you yourself have experienced such an effect regarding Barack Obama? You seem to go after him a lot . . .

Posted by: Felicia | Nov 29, 2007 5:04:00 PM

It's not so much that "negative campaigning works" as a proof of the old saw that a lie circles the world before the truth has its boots on. People, in many cases, believe or have a hard time forgetting, their first impression. So when Tucker Carlson the frozen dinner heir makes a point of calling Edwards a Jacuzzi lawyer, it's a calculated move to portray him as an ambulance chaser, the kind of lawyer everyone hates (unless he's working for you).

In the today's sound-bite driven campaign, these little pinpricks are the weapon of choice.

If I ran the zoo, campaign ads would have a minimum length and maximum frequency and would be aired by the broadcasters as a condition of their license to use the public airwaves. Out with the 15 second attack every hour, and in with the 15 minute presentation of ideas, of things you'll do, not what you say the other guy did.

Posted by: paul | Dec 1, 2007 1:11:19 AM

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