By Jay Dixit, published on November 1, 2008 - last reviewed on April 6, 2012
Here's a funny thing about the human mind: Hearing that a statement is false can actually lead you to remember it as true. It simply becomes more familiar in the mind, studies show. Unfortunately, such studies reveal more about the limits of memory than about how to deny a prominent rumor. Nevertheless, rumor specialist Nicholas DiFonzo of the University of Rochester offers some advice on what to do if you find yourself the subject of a nasty tale.
DON'T lie. If the rumor is true, don't try to deny it. If people are motivated, they'll figure out the facts.
DO deny the rumor if it's false. "Refutations are generally productive, even if they have some problems associated with them," says DiFonzo. "A denial still raises questions in people's minds, but properly done, it helps inoculate people against believing a false rumor."
DO use a trusted neutral third party to refute the rumor. "When Proctor and Gamble had a terrible time with false rumors alleging they were Satanists, they recruited Christian religious leaders to help refute the rumor," explains DiFonzo. "That was very helpful."
DO provide a point-by-point refutation. The more specific and concrete you are, the more likely it is your refutation will be believed and remembered.
DO provide a context for why you're refuting it in the first place. Don't just deny a rumor in a vacuum, saying, "Bob Talbert is not a member of the mafia," "I am not a crook," or "My products are safe." People will wonder why you're saying this and may conclude you're trying to cover something up. Better to do as Barack Obama did and explain, "You may have recently heard right-wing smears questioning Barack Obama's Christian faith. These assertions are completely false and designed to play into the worst kind of stereotypes. The truth is that Barack Obama is a committed and active Christian." By explaining why he was refuting the rumors, Obama provided a context that made his denial more believable.