The new research reveals how and why such smear campaigns can take root. That’s important to know, in order to expose the efforts of those who push to increase the acceptance of falsehoods as part of a strategy for political gain.
Those efforts reflect a temporary but growing backlash against significant, massive shifts in our country. That shift is towards attitudes, values and behavior towards acceptance of diversity, empathy, policies that serve the larger common good, and recognition of global responsibility. My posts here are about the impact of these shifts upon psychological health and resiliency. The new research reveals some important information about the political/social backlash to the cultural shifts underway, and how to make sense of it.
Regarding the smear campaign against Obama, the research found that people are more likely to accept false representations, both consciously and unconsciously, when they are reminded of ways in which Obama is different from them – whether about racial, social class or other differences.
The study was led by researchers at Michigan State and others at University of Arizona, the University of British Columbia and Leiden University in the Netherlands. In four separate experiments (three were conducted before the Presidential election and one after), the researchers looked at both conscious and unconscious acceptance of political smears by mostly white, non-Muslim college students.
One part of the study consisted of showing some participants false blog reports that Obama is a Muslim or a socialist or that John McCain is senile. Another part looked at how rapidly participants could identify smear-relevant words such as “Muslim” or “turban” after Obama’s name was presented subliminally.
Among the findings: Participants who supported McCain said there is a 56 percent likelihood Obama is a Muslim. But when they were asked to fill out a demographic card asking for their own race, the likelihood jumped to 77 percent. This indicates that simply thinking about a social category that differentiated participants from Obama was enough to get them to believe the smear.
Participants who were undecided about the candidates said there is a 43 percent chance McCain is senile. That number increased to 73 percent when they simply listed their own age on a card. Undecided participants said there is a 25 percent chance Obama is a socialist, but that number jumped to 62 percent when they considered race.
According to the lead researcher, Spee Kosloff, “Even though being a socialist has nothing to do with race, irrationally they tied the two together.” Moreover, according to Kosloff, the recent increase in belief that Obama is Muslim likely reflects a growing disenchantment with his presidency — a sense that people feel Obama is not on their side.
“As his job rating goes down, suggesting that people feel like he’s not ideologically on their side, we see an increase in this irrational belief that he’s a Muslim,” Kosloff said. “Unfortunately, in America, many people dislike Muslims so they’ll label Obama as Muslim when they feel different from him. When people are unsatisfied with the president — whether it’s the way he’s handling the economy, health care or Afghanistan — our research suggests that this only fuels their readiness to accept untrue rumors.”
Exploiting Your Receptivity To Lies
Our media-centric culture makes it possible for falsehoods to spread rapidly, and then, as the research indicates, perceived differences can lead to acceptance of outright lies. Regarding Obama, the research suggests that dissatisfaction with his policies can cause people to be more receptive to believing falsehoods, such as the his being anti-American, being in alliance with our enemies, and, of course, being a secret Muslim.
The latter falsehood is particularly relevant because a Pew Research Center poll in August found that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim – up from 11 percent in March 2009 – even though he’s a practicing Christian.
One might say that the research findings confirm what’s not hard to intuit – that perceived differences from an “alien other” can make one receptive to lies or stereotypes. Shrewd, agenda-driven individuals and political movements can easily exploit that. A good example is the current controversy over former House majority leader Newt Gingrich’s recent comments to the National Review Online alleging that Obama is driven by a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset that governs the President’s actions, which he called “authentically dishonest” and “factually insane.”
Gingrich’s comments on the National Review’s website were inspired, he said, by a Forbes article by Dinesh D’Souza, who writes that Obama is essentially channeling the soul of his late Kenyan-born father, an African “tribesman of the 1950s.” D’Souza writes that “This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”
This is laughable, cartoonish psychoanalysis (my professional opinion!) – reminiscent of something the Nazis might have promulgated about Jews to justify their “cleansing” policies.
But Gingrich was ready to lap it up, saying that D’Souza’s article is the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama.” And, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together” his actions?” Gingrich added, “This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president. I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating — none of which was true. He was authentically dishonest.”
Such comments reveal the psychology involved, as the research indicated. That is, if you are led to think of Obama as the “other,” different from oneself, then you may be open to believing the most far-fetched portrayal of him.
However, in a changing culture, increasingly perceptive about such manipulations, this eventually backfires. In fact, I think the growing shift in our culture is reflected in those who perceive the similarities shared with others, rather than differences. Then, you don’t fall for the bait. An example is the immediate response to D’Souza’s story was published in a Columbia Journalism Review article by Ryan Chittum, who calls it a “…shameful piece on Obama as the ‘Other’….a gross piece of innuendo-a fact-twisting, error-laden piece of paranoia.”
He adds, ” …the notion popular in the right-wing fever swamps that Obama is an ‘other,’ that he doesn’t think like ‘an American,’ that his actions benefit foreigners rather than ‘Amurricans’ is too kind to call this innuendo. D’Souza’s distortions and lies are clearly designed to make Obama appear to be anti-American, and anti-white; someone different from ‘us,’ who’s bent on carrying out the African tribal mission of his father (whom he met one time, briefly, at age 10).”
What Lies Ahead?
Growing evidence from research, polls and demographic surveys show that the current backlash is a last gasp of a dying, descending set of attitudes and beliefs; a growing desperation about shifts that are like a rising tsunami in our society. These shifts are towards an increasingly diverse population and acceptance of that diversity; towards recognition of the need to serve the larger common good through political and public policies; and towards recognizing that we’re all in the same boat in this globalized world, and we will stand or fall together, as President Obama recently stated.
What impresses me more than the receptivity to perceiving differences, and acting on lies that exploit those perceptions, is the growing recognition of sameness, beneath differences. I’ll be writing about these shifts in future posts and how they impact resiliency and psychological health. Right now those shifts are not yet highly visible because we’re living through a time that of backlash against them. Many people view our changing society with fear and a sense of loss. They should be understood, but not condoned or excused for destructive actions.