What should Obama do about "death panel" rumors?

The best thing for the president to do, if he wants the myth to go away, might be nothing

Published August 18, 2009 10:15PM (EDT)

If President Obama wants to stop the silly "death panel" rumors in their tracks, then he has to take a stand, right? Come out forcefully and declare a lie a lie, work hard to counter myth with cold hard fact, and put those responsible for the misinformation in their place?

Maybe not. Actually, my former colleague Farhad Manjoo -- who knows a lot about this stuff -- makes a convincing argument that the best thing Obama could do in this situation is, well, nothing at all:

During the last few years, I've spoken to many experts on the proliferation of rumors. Based on those conversations, I've got some simple advice for Obama: Shut up about the death panels already. Don't keep fighting this rumor. You've lost—and the more time you spend trying to make things better, the worse off you'll be.

I understand this is hard medicine to swallow. Whatever you think about health care reform, it's hard to abide complete fabrications. There isn't a shred of evidence to support the idea that Obama's proposals create any mechanism to send old people to an early grave .... Responding to lies seems only natural. How could the White House stand by in silence while opponents make outlandish claims?

But there are two problems with trying to correct misinformation. First, once people buy into a set of facts, they're unlikely to change their minds, even if presented with evidence to the contrary ....

The other problem with fighting misinformation is that you risk spreading the myths beyond the groups of people who already believe it.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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