How should we respond to lies and deceptions about a person who has instilled hope in millions of Americans? The attacks, as we know only too well, have a long history of effectiveness that could keep our hopes from being realized. This is unacceptable.
The Obama campaign has just launched a new website to fight the smears. While it is encouraging that they are taking seriously the need to respond quickly to hateful distortions and fabrications, we want to lay out a more effective approach than the standard myth-busting tactic. This conventional approach to dispelling myths about a candidate is to first present and label the smear, then offer facts that contradict it. Recent studies have shown that this approach can backfire and reinforce the ideas you are attempting to debunk. Studies have shown that people often to "misremember" falsehoods as facts the more efforts to dispel the myth are repeated. The Washington Post and FactCheck have also pointed out the drawbacks of this approach to myth-busting.
Let's consider why these smears work in the first place. This will allow us to identify a strategy that works.
What is the purpose of a smear? Every smear has a proximate goal and an ultimate goal. The proximate goal is to instill some false or misleading idea in the minds of listeners. This serves the ultimate goal of subverting the moral character of the person being attacked. So when Obama's birthplace is called into question, the ultimate goal is to spread doubt about his integrity and weaken the inspirational power of his life story. When his religious affiliation is challenged by falsehoods, the ultimate goal is to instill fear and distrust in the populace through associations with beliefs that are unfamiliar to and mistrusted by many Americans.
This observation about the nature of smears leads to a piece of strategic advice: respond to the ultimate goal directly. To focus on the proximate goal is to fall into a trap of reinforcing the original association that the smear-mongerer is pushing.
A second observation can be made about the focus of a smear. Karl Rove is famous for asserting that opponents should be attacked where they are strongest. A key part of his approach that doesn't receive enough attention is the fact that the focus is always directed toward a perceived moral strength. So when Obama's integrity is challenged by a smear, we can safely conclude that his integrity is widely seen as an advantage that his opponents must overcome.
Another piece of strategic advice: respond with a focus on the moral weakness of the attacker, rather than the intended target of the original attack. To focus on the details of Obama's birthplace, for example, creates a sense of legitimacy to the controversy. All the while, the attacker remains hidden in the wings and suffers no rebuke.
Missing from responses that focus on the details contained in a smear is the story about why these smears are being conducted, and who is doing the dirty work. There is an effective strategy that deserves consideration -- what we'll call Political Jujitsu. The central feature of this approach is to turn the attacks against the aggressor by calling into question the intentions and credibility of the instigator.
Political Jujitsu, like the martial art, is a form of self-defense that is only effective when a person is forcibly attacked. Smears are intended as a weapon for character assassination, used by aggressors who prefer to remain hidden from view, which we could liken to the art of assassination, Ninjutsu.
This approach is founded upon the recognition that human beings organize our knowledge in the form of stories. Facts alone will not demonstrate the moral character of our candidate, just as they do not encapsulate the moral failures of our opponents. New information can transform the stories we tell, just as a new ingredient can transform a recipe. Adding turnips to a cake makes for a very different dining experience! Instead of simply seeking to "update" the facts, we must craft alternative stories that reveal the deception at work.
Let's attempt to clarify this with an example. How might we respond to an email asserting that Obama is secretly a Muslim? Just as in jujitsu, there must be a point of contact for leveraging a shift in the attacker's momentum. One point of contact is the role that the facts play in the story. Shifting this role can reverse the direction of the attack back upon its creator.
In the original attack, the role of facts (e.g. Obama's religious affiliation) is a point of entry for introducing a new narrative -- one in which Obama has secretly practiced something other than what he publicly professes. Here is a sample response that references the use of faulty facts to deceive people:
We need to be aware that there are people trying to use us to spread misinformation and do their dirty work for them. We live in a democracy and there are powerful interests who fear the idea of letting us choose our own leaders. Some have exploited the flaws in our democracy to get their hands on the levers of power and they don't want to let go. One of their standard tactics is to introduce an anonymous message filled with lies and distortions, trusting that we will blindly distribute it to all our friends. This is terribly destructive, not only to democracy, but to our personal lives because the tactic exploits the trust we share with those who are closest to us.
Barack Obama has devoted his life to public service. He has worked tirelessly for years to help people, like the factory workers in South Chicago who lost their jobs when work was shipped overseas (work he did through a Christian church). Whatever your political views, I'm sure you'll agree that fighting for American workers is something we can all respect.
I am happy to share with you a thoughtful speech by Obama that tells how his Christian faith has shaped his political beliefs. Weigh his lifetime of service motivated by his belief in Jesus Christ against the anonymous author spreading falsehoods through email. We need to call out the act of deception for what it is -- an attempt to assassinate the character of a good man.
A question I urge you to ask yourself is why the exploiters of power who started this lie don't have the integrity to be honest with the American people? The vast majority of Americans know that the economy is not working and the country is going in the wrong direction. But a few are profiting like never before at our expense and they are afraid of policies that would respect and value the efforts of hard-working Americans. Rather than challenge such policies head on, they prefer to use us to spread their propaganda.
Smears like the one in that email are meant to draw our attention to some moral failing in our leaders. The real moral failing is in the people who concocted this smear in the first place and thought so little of us when they sought to hijack the democratic process that makes America great.
There is more I could say about attacks on a person's faith, such as the impossibility of responding to claims by an anonymous attacker that you, or a member of your family, secretly believe something other than the faith that you profess and demonstrate. But I think it is more important to point out the level of vigilance we need to practice if we want to preserve our democratic traditions. This includes a recognition of the motives held by those who would so cavalierly distort our political process to serve their selfish ends.
We're going to see more smears by these powerful elites who profit while most Americans suffer. I hope I can count on you to help alert others when they use these tactics to try to divide us in the days ahead.
This sample shifts the role of facts from asserting a falsehood in the original attack to revealing the existence of a deceiver in the response. The emphasis becomes one of questioning the sources of such messages to confirm their validity, instead of digressing into a "he said, she said" that only reinforces the false idea as it is repeated over and over.
This Political Jujitsu can be used every time you are exposed to a smear against Obama, or any other honest candidate. The story of deception is there to be told in every instance of smear. It structures the facts in a way that is meaningful and memorable. Try it and see how well it works.
Evan Frisch and Joe Brewer are co-founders of hivethrive.