By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How false becomes true

Dan Gillmor blasts the media for a recent New York Times/CBS News poll finding that one-third of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He writes:

The continuing scandal is that media organizations are doing so little to correct the record. Because it is not enough to run an occasional story debunking the lie.

I don’t disagree, but it’s also more complicated than that. Last Friday, NPR’s “On the Media” ran a fascinating interview with the Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam, whose reporting suggests that the harder you try to debunk a falsehood, the more people are likely to believe it. Here’s Vedantam, talking about what happened after the subjects of a University of Michigan study read a flier produced by the Centers for Disease Control debunking myths about vaccines:

[A]bout 30 minutes later, older people started to remember some of the false statements as true, and three days later, very large numbers of older people and significant numbers of younger people also started remembering increasing numbers of myths as true.

The true statements did not suffer the same kind of deterioration with time. In other words, over time we tend to remember false things as true but not true things as false.

This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t at least try to educate the public in an ongoing way. But it does mean that it’s likely a significant minority of Americans will continue to believe whatever they like, whether it’s about 9/11 or the (non)-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

After all, as Vedantam points out, majorities in Arab and Muslim countries continue to believe the United States and/or Israel were responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. You can only do so much to set the record straight.

Vedantam’s original Post story is online here.

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  1. Sean Roche

    I wonder if one strategy might be to focus reporting not on the falsehood, but the person repeating the falsehood.I think people are better at managing ideas through people than ideas as abstractions.

  2. Rick

    “a failure of human understanding.”Gov Patrick on the attacks of Sept 11. I’m speechless

  3. Citizen Charles Foster Kane

    Of course you are Rick, because the people who attacked us are subhuman according to folks of your political stripe.

  4. Rick

    Whacked out religious fanatics to be exact. Do you think the people who want to destroy us would sit down and discuss our differences? Think again, you would show up for a nice little meeting and they would cut your head off and praise Allah after.But maybe just maybe if we try to understand them we can change our ways to keep them happy. Sounds cowardly to me.You can’t reason with people who still think it’s the 3rd century

  5. Anonymous

    Um, Islam didn’t exist in the third century….

  6. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    What about the two biggest lies of the 21st Century so far: “Bush lied,” and “War for oil?” When will the media correct those whoppers?

  7. Anonymous

    If they do, it sure won’t happen here…

  8. Anonymous

    Dan, as the long as the government doesn’t come clean about what actually happened on 9/11, people have every reason to doubt the official story. To give just one example, CNN reported yesterday that an aircraft seen circling restricted airspace over Washington on 9/11 was an Air Force E-4B, known as a military “doomsday plane” designed to keep the government running in the event of a catastrophic event. This aircraft wasn’t mentioned at all in the 9/11 Commission report and the Pentagon continues to deny that any military aircraft were flying over Washington at the tim. Eyewitnesses report seeing the plane at or before the time the Pentagon was attacked. The E-4B is designed to fly at high altitudes at high speeds, but eyewitnesses say this plane was circling at a low speed, relatively low to the ground. It is completely rational to question how the Pentagon succeeded at launching an E-4B in the air at the time of the attack on the Pentagon, yet still failed to scramble jets in time to prevent the attack in the first place over the most restricted and protected airspace on earth. more you learn about the myraid of questions and inconsistencies still surrounding the events of 9/11, the more you’ll doubt the official story. I promise you. Whether you want to go there in the first place is another story entirely.

  9. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    Anon 2:19 Are you the king of the conspiracy buffs? Do you see UFOs too? CNN? Good grief.

  10. Anonymous

    More on Great Lies of the 21st Century:Lie: “The war in Iraq is not about oil.” In his new book, Alan Greenspan, a bona fide Cheney friend, illuminates this lie — “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Bush has given a long shifting list of different reasons for the war so it’s innane to say oil is not on that list. “Deficits don’t matter.” Again, another Bush Administration lie refuted by Greenspan in the book: “deficits must matter” since uncontrolled spending can cause “economic devastation.””Karl Rove is a genius.” Karl Rove is just a vicious liar. Bush won in 2000 through a long series of lies including the lie that Al Gore is a liar. I’m waiting for the Karl Rove book on all of the lies he has used to put people in office.

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