Why it's so damn hard to stop a rumor

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A new study confirms what pop stars and middle schoolers and President Obama have known for years — rumors are very, very hard to quash. Especially political rumors.


In an upcoming paper, to be published in the British Journal of Political Science, MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky details just how difficult it is to correct untruths once they’ve taken hold in the political sphere. As a case study for his piece, “Rumors, Truths, and Reality: A Study of Political Misinformation," Berinsky looked at the persistence of the death panel myth.

A bit of context here — the “death panel” rumor circulated in 2009 after members of the Republican party (we're looking at you, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann) described a nonexistent provision of the Affordable Care Act: A panel of healthcare officials that would decide whether the sick and elderly deserved to receive medical care, based on how valuable they were to society. Politifact soundly debunked the claim a few days later, writing:

“We have read all 1,000-plus pages of the Democratic bill and examined versions in various committees. There is no panel in any version of the health care bills in Congress that judges a person's ‘level of productivity in society’ to determine whether they are ‘worthy’ of health care.”

Politifact suggested that the kernel of truth that spawned the lies is actually quite different from the dystopian death panels of the right-wing imagination:

“The truth is that the health bill allows Medicare, for the first time, to pay for doctors' appointments for patients to discuss living wills and other end-of-life issues with their physicians. These types of appointments are completely optional, and AARP supports the measure.”

So, not death panels, at all.

But the rumor persisted, and became an ideal case study for those interested in political myths. In 2013, researcher Brendan Nyhan led a study which found that, in some cases, reading a death-panel correction reinforced their belief in their existence. The Washington Post explained at the time:

“For high information Palin supporters though, the correction backfired: They appeared more likely to believe in death panels after reading the appended information, and have less favorable opinions of the Affordable Care Act.”


Berinsky also examined the death panel rumor, and found even more troubling results. In a phone interview, Berinsky told Fusion that issuing a correction actually serves to exacerbate the problem: “This is not a very effective strategy… by simply saying ‘here’s a particular rumor,’ you’re increasing what we call the fluency or the familiarity of the rumor.” The problem, he added, “is that rumors are really sticky.”

This means that even if the truth sticks in the short run, the rumor will likely stick in the long run. Berinsky asked participants in his study to read a falsehood, and then an explanation of why it's wrong. In the process, he made sure that the participants were actively engaging with the rumor, and followed up to see which they remembered. The rumor stuck.


There are other factors that make rumors difficult to shake. “A lot of political issues are very much emotional issues,” said Berinsky, and “these types of rumors can really spread.”

And Internet news cycle doesn’t help. “It’s made it easier for people to find like-minded individuals. In some way I think having a 24-hour news cycle, where things are constantly repeated, could spark it… stories can get hold and spiral on top of each other, continuously,” said Berinsky.


So how do you stop rumors from spreading? One thing you can do (as many news editors will tell you) is make the correction without repeating the untruth.

But the best way, says Berinsky, is to ask a credible, opposing party to debunk the rumor themselves. In the death panel scenario, for example, a Republican senator’s statement calling the rumor false would go much further towards cementing the change in people’s mind than negation by a Democratic official. “Nothing is more credible than a person who says something that is clearly against their own interest, “ Berinsky explained, adding “people are very attuned to the credibility of a source.” He found that both Democrats and Republicans were more likely to remember the correct healthcare information if it was offered by a Republican source.


Northwestern’s Dr. Gary Alan Fine, who has spent years studying rumor (along with Ralph L. Rosnow, Fine co-authored a book called Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay back in 1976) confirmed that much of what Berinsky found applies to rumors more generally. In a phone interview with Fusion Fine, who is not familiar with Berinsky’s work, explained:

“In some of my writing I talk about two fundamental processes: One I call the politics of plausibility. The other I speak of as the politics of credibility.The first has to do with the content of the rumor: Does it make sense in terms of what people believe in?… the second, the politics of credibility, has to do with who spreads the information. Does that source seem to be a credible source?”


Fine added that the types of rumors that appeal to us are ones that fit in with our worldview — to derail them, we need to be presented with more convincing information. “Sometimes, you can [debunk a rumor] by providing more information, by providing facts.” He offered an anecdotal example:

“This goes back now about 35 years. There was a rumor that was spread that McDonald’s used worms in their hamburgers. Kind of an implausible rumor, but it was spread quite a bit. That was one of the reasons that the hamburgers were so juicy.”


That legend, said Fine, was debunked by the head of another fast food company — a credible, opposing source like the one mentioned by Berinsky. Fine continued: “The CEO of another hamburger chain said that he knew for sure that that rumor was false, because a pound of red worms costs more than a pound of red meat.”

This presents a convincing counterpoint — why would a large corporation spend more to replace beef (or beef product) with worms? The rumor fell away.


The example, however, represents more than just convincing, new information. The debunking story is as satisfying as the rumor itself. When asked if the quality of the CEO-tale played a role in its success, Fine said yes. “That’s one of the things that drives these stories — at one point someone described rumor as ‘verbal chewing gum.’ There’s pleasure in communicating stories.”

So the truth, too, can spread — if it’s sexy enough. Good luck with that, candidates.


Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.