Nicholas DiFonzo

Nicholas DiFonzo

Around the Watercooler

Political Rumors in the 2008 Election.

The pyschology of the 2008 election rumors.

Posted Oct 29, 2008

The 2008 election has seen a plethora of false, derogatory and damaging rumors. Some of the most common falsehoods: Barack Obama is a Muslim. Sarah Palin is Trig's grandmother. John McCain had an affair with an attractive lobbyist.

My hoaxbuster site friends tell me that tales about Senator Obama-that he refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag, swore his oath of office on a Koran, was trained in a terrorist camp, and receives major funding from Arabs-far outnumbered those targeting other politicians.

That is, until Sarah Palin stepped on the national stage.
Since then we have witnessed an explosion of rumors about Governor Palin-some of which were fueled by premature stories in major newspapers: she's part of a group that wants Alaska to secede from the Union, she tried to ban Harry Potter books from Wasilla Library, she pushed for creationism to be part of the high school science curriculum in Alaska, and she called Obama "Sambo." All false.

What can explain the prevalence of these rumors? The short answer is: one part uncertainty, one part belief, and one part defensive sentiment. And possibly one part propaganda.

One part Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the psychological state of doubt, of being filled with questions about what events mean or what will happen in the future. In situations that are ambiguous-or as sociologists say "undefined"-uncertainty abounds.

Most people find this uncertainty unpleasant, and have an inborn need to sort things out. Rumor is what happens when we sort things out together. A rumor is an unverified informational statement that circulates about a topic that people perceive as important. When uncertain, people speculate, hypothesize, and pass around informal explanations-that is, they pass around rumor.

Senator Obama and Governor Palin are both relative newcomers to the political scene; hence they are a more vulnerable to this speculation, inaccuracy, and innuendo. Because most of us haven't heard of them until recently, ambiguity abounds: Who are they? What are they like? What have they done? What have they said? What do they stand for? What are their values?

The "Obama-is-a-Muslim" rumor builds upon questions created in part by Obama's unusual middle name-Hussein-which unfortunately for the Senator happens to be the name of a famous late Iraqi dictator. Some people naturally wonder: why does a Christian have a middle name commonly bestowed on men of Islamic background? The answer is really quite simple: Obama's grandfather took the name when he converted to Islam, and it was handed down to Barack even though his family wasn't very religious. Another uncertainty stems from a well-known photograph passed around on the Internet of Obama's grade school registration stating that he was a Muslim. How could that be? According to the Obama campaign, the school made an error-very plausible given the school's Islamic majority.

The Trig-is-Sarah's-grandson rumor capitalizes on uncertainty created in part by Governor Palin's rather quick maternal delivery. She didn't look very pregnant until late in her pregnancy; How come? Again, the answer is pretty banal: we've all known some women who don't seem to "show" much and are back on the job as soon as the baby is born.

If you think of your own life, you'll quickly see that it has it has some curious features. Why are you so tall and all of your siblings are of average height? Despite the fact that the chances of that happening randomly are good, one could look on that anomaly and be tempted to create an explanatory rumor: "I heard that Arthur was adopted." If you were running for President or VeeP it might become grist for the rumor mill. Something about each of us is unusual. Most people have at least some curious features associated with them. Obama has an unusual middle name; Palin had an unusually quick delivery. Life is rarely without loose ends. Rumors capitalize upon these loose ends and try to tie them up.

The uncertainty is compounded by a loss of confidence in official sources of information. Before the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), news was carefully monitored and controlled by the government; anything contrary to official Soviet policy was not published. Not surprisingly, the official news was distrusted. Political scientists Raymond A. Bauer and David B. Gleicher chronicled how rumors were extensively relied on by Soviet citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1950 and 1951, these researchers conducted over 300 oral interviews with Soviet refugees living in Europe or the United States. Although rumors were derogated by the government, they flourished. Sixty-six percent of the persons who listed word-of-mouth as a regular source of information also considered it to be their most important source of information. This measure of how "potent" or "salient" a source of information was indicated that rumors were more potent than all other sources of information, including newspapers (48 percent), radio (24 percent), meetings (11 percent), and personal observation (36 percent). In other words, in an environment where official news could not be trusted, word-of-mouth information-in large part rumors-was the most powerful.

I fear that we are approaching a similar state of affairs, not because the state controls the media, but because over half of Americans distrust the press. A recent Harris poll found that 54% of American stated that they tended not to trust the press, while only 30% said they did. The distrust is somewhat stronger among Republicans than Democrats, but is nonetheless substantial across the political spectrum.

The inevitable result: greater reliance on unofficial sources of information, word-of-mouth, and rumor.

One part Belief

People tend to spread rumors that they believe as compared with those they don't believe. But the interesting thing here is that belief depends in part on your already-held attitudes. People tend to believe rumors that agree with their own point of view.

I've been exploring this idea in a recent set of studies using students who are part of a rival pair of groups (e.g., Republicans and Democratic students). My research team has presented individuals in these groups a series of statements that are either positive or negative about their group or the other group. For example, one Democrat negative rumor is that Democrats are more likely to be alcoholic than the average citizen (By the way, all the statements in this paragraph are fictional-we made them up-and we debrief students carefully to make sure they understand that they are fictional). A Democrat positive rumor is that Democrats give more to charity than the average citizen. We also created Republican positive and Republican negative rumors by systematically changing the targets of these statements.

So far, these studies show that derogatory and praising rumors about the rival group are equally likely to be believed, but when the rumors are about one's own group, people are more likely to believe praising than derogatory rumors. In other words, it seems that we are more willing to disbelieve a derogatory rumor and believe a praising rumor when the target of the rumor is one of our own than when he or she is from the opposing camp.

This makes intuitive sense, and highlights a finding from attitude research: People tend to use their own attitude as a rule of thumb in determining whether or not something is true.

Ideology is one such attitude that-in part-explains belief in the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor. A July 15th Pew Research report found that among all registered voters, 14% of conservatives versus 6% of liberals believe that Obama is a Muslim; ideology appears to plays a role in belief in this rumor. (Interestingly, 17% of conservative Democrats held this belief). I know of no polls measuring belief that Trig-is-Sarah's-grandson, but my prediction is that liberals are more likely to believe it than conservatives.

Hearing rumors again and again also tends to increase our belief in them. In one recent study, participants heard rumors-such as "professors are bribing students" and "coyotes were seen on campus"-from zero to nine times. Then they were asked how strongly they believed these rumors. The more often a tale was heard, the more confident people were that it was true. These results are cause for sober pause-hearing a rumor repeatedly leads to increased belief in it. We seem to use the rule of thumb "if it sounds familiar, it is more likely to be true." What we hear often may in fact seem more plausible simply because we hear it often.

Here is where the active blogosphere compounds these effects. Studies of the World Wide Web show that birds of a feather flock together: Conservative weblogs are overwhelmingly hyperlinked to other conservative weblogs, and liberal weblogs are almost always connected to other liberal weblogs. Only about 10% of weblog connections cross ideological lines.


The Obama rumors are circulating actively in the conservative blogosphere; the Palin rumors race around the liberal Web. Consequently, conservatives hear the Obama rumors often; liberals hear the Palin rumors regularly. Each is predisposed to believe the partisan rumor they are likely to hear in these chambers, and because they hear them again and again, each believes it more and more strongly.

They are each in an echo chamber.

One Part Defensive Sentiment

Rumors are sometimes used to defend oneself against a threat. The threat posed can be psychological in nature. A situation may challenge a belief, attitude, mindset, or sense of identity. Strong feelings of defensiveness can be called forth when we-or groups that we identify with-are criticized or derogated; we can feel very threatened indeed. Rumors can neutralize such threats, for example, by denigrating the source of the challenge or by bolstering our own position, cause, or group.

In 2007, WorldPublicOpinion.org conducted an in-depth survey of citizens from four predominately Muslim countries-Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia; the sample was representative of the population of each of these countries. The survey explored sentiments toward the United States and Al Qaeda, and attitudes about the use of violence on civilian populations. Very large majorities of participants opposed violence against civilians, as exemplified in the acts of September 11, 2001 perpetrated by Al Qaeda. However, because American intentions are widely believed to be hostile to Islam, respondents were motivated not to criticize any group-including Al Qaeda-antagonistic to the United States.

Among a number of interesting findings were the perceptions of who was responsible for the attacks of September 11th. Only a very small minority-2 percent of Pakistanis, for example-thought that Al Qaeda orchestrated the attacks. When pressed in focus groups that Osama bin Laden had taken responsibility for the attacks on videotape, many participants became visibly uncomfortable and defensive, expressed disbelief, and suggested that the video was fake. A common response was that "Hollywood can create anything."

Instead, many thought that unknown persons, Israel, or even the United States was behind the events. To wit, rumors persist that 4,000 Jews were told by the Israeli Secret Service on September 10, 2001, not to report to work at the World Trade Center the next day-the implication being that Israel bombed the buildings to incite anti-Arab sentiment. Rumors portraying Israel or the United States as masterminding September 11th are likely to spring up in situations where participants feel defensive about Al Qaeda's role in the attacks.

Arab nations, of course, do not have a monopoly on such rumors-they circulate among all people whenever defensive sentiments arise. False rumors of widespread Arab celebration at the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th are also well-known.

Undoubtedly, some people are spreading derogatory rumors about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in part because they feel threatened. In one sense the rumors are motivated by fear: The candidate whom they oppose stands a fair chance of gaining office. This is a scary thought for many people (the fear is rational or irrational, depending on your point of view). Partisans who strongly identify as liberals or conservatives would be greatly dismayed should the ticket representing the opposing ideology win because they sincerely believe that the country will be worse off.

But the other part of the defensiveness surrounding these rumors is about hate. Partisans who spread these rumors may do so as an aggressive act against the rival party-as a way to express hostility, resentment, and anger. It's not very pretty to talk about. Spreaders of the Obama rumors may do so in part to justify strong feelings of antipathy toward liberals; spreaders of the Palin rumors may do so in part to justify strong feelings of antipathy toward conservatives.

I've seen it go in both directions. I've heard some of the Obama rumors stated in such a way that leaves no doubt about a dislike for liberals. I've also witnessed the vitriolic flavor surrounding the discussion of Senator Palin. Some nerve has been touched and it's hard to find calm, reasoned, informed and charitable parlor room debate in this election. Rumors denigrating the other side are a way to venting palpable negative sentiment.

In a similar way, these rumors also serve at the same time to justify negative sentiment. Politics has always been a hot topic, but what can explain the current acrimony between Democrats and Republicans? Negative rumors about politicians from the opposing party help people justify their intense dislike for that candidate or party. I receive negative political e-rumors from both sides of the aisle. These rumors are always of "the other side is bad" variety. They are never checked for veracity, but simply forwarded to friends believed to be likeminded. These rumors serve a purpose-to justify negative sentiment toward the rival group-in this case, the opposing political party. We would normally consider such bias for what it is-unfair and distasteful; rumors, however, can make it palatable.

One Part Propaganda?

The last part raises a question: Are these rumors planted? Propaganda rumors-misinformation deliberately planted to gain political, strategic, competitive, or military advantage-have a long history. During World War II, German agents alternately spread upbeat and downbeat rumors one after another among the French with the intention to confuse and demoralize the French people. The infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels also spread many different rumors about German operations so that they functioned as a "smokescreen"; the real intention of German activity was thus difficult to discern. Many of the wedge-driving rumors collected by the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety during this time could be traced back to Axis radio broadcasts whose intentions were to divide Allied forces against themselves.


Similarly, political propaganda rumors may be driven by strong polarization and competition. Rumor researcher Jean-Noel Kapferer describes rumors circulating before municipal elections in 1983 in Grenoble, France. The rumors alleged that Hubert Dubedout, the socialist mayor, had an Algerian mother and was related to a wealthy tycoon from Arabic North Africa, a "Mr. Boudoudou" (the names sound familiar). The rumors may have contributed to Dubedout's defeat in that election. (It is startling how this rumor mirrors the Obama-is-a-Muslim tale). Allport and Postman called such political propaganda rumors "whispering campaigns." More recently, the late Saddam Hussein regularly spread rumors to discourage resistance to his dictatorship. In light of this, rumors that he possessed weapons of mass destruction are likely to have first originated from Hussein himself, as well as Hussein's opponents (e.g., Ahmed Chalabi and other Iraqi defectors) who desired U.S. assistance in toppling him.

Were the 2008 election rumors planted? It does seem likely that some partisans purposely crafted the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor and the Trig-is-Palin's-grandson rumor-while knowing they were false-then planting them in blogospheres where they were sure to flourish. The extreme sense of polarized conflict along ideological lines currently extant in the political scene makes this idea plausible.

(This post was adapted from an Op-Ed article I wrote in the NY Post, 9/14/08)

About the Author

Nicholas DiFonzo

Nicholas DiFonzo is Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.

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