In today's surprising news, a growing number of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim. According to the results of a new national survey by the Pew Research Center, 18 percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009:
Unsurprisingly, this misperception is far more common among his political opponents; 34 percent of conservative Republicans say that Obama is a Muslim, as do 30 percent of those who disapprove of his performance. That said, the numbers aren't much better among supporters. Only 46 percent of Democrats accurately say that he is a Christian, down from 55 percent from last year.
Obviously, this begs the question: What has happened since last year that led many Americans to the transparently false belief that Obama is a Muslim? Matt Yglesias chalks it up to the "general dynamic of recession-induced suspicion," but I think there's more to it than that; last year, in a joint paper, University of Michigan political scientist (and blogger) Brendan Nyhan examined the "Obama is a Muslim" myth for insights into the problem of countering political misperception.
He and his team found that a straightforward negation of the claim -- "Obama is not a Muslim" -- is more likely to "strengthen the association in a listener's mind between the subject of the sentence and the concept being negated." A listener who hears "Obama is not a Muslim," is more likely to walk away believing that Obama is a Muslim, especially if that listener is a Republican. Positive frames -- "Obama belongs to a Christian church" -- are more effective in dispelling the myth, but they can fail and backfire under the right conditions. By regularly negating the myth, there's a good chance that critics reinforced it.
That's not to say that economic conditions are irrelevant; after reading the survey, I spoke with Michele Claibourn, a political scientist at the University of Virginia (Disclaimer: I was her student), on the "stickiness" of political misinformation, and she suggested a few things. First, big ideas are stickier than smaller ones, and negative ones are stickier than positive ones; the Muslim myth is a hugely negative claim, and as such, will stick with you even if you don't believe it. Moreover, this poll was taken in early August, when the controversy over Cordoba House and Islam first entered headlines. With the economy faltering and Obama unpopular, Americans were looking for ways to explain and rationalize their unhappiness with his presidency.
The Muslim myth is easy to recall, fits in with pre-existing beliefs about Obama's otherness, and above all, very recent. For some Americans, that's more than enough.
-- Jamelle Bouie
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