Study explores belief in rumor that Obama is Muslim

Mar 10, 2010

Exposure to news media has long been thought to help create a more informed and politically educated citizenry, but a new University of Georgia study finds that media exposure did little to correct a significant misperception during the most recent presidential campaign.

Approximately 20 percent of Americans believed that then-Senator was a Muslim during the 2008 despite news stories and fact-checking Web sites that attempted to debunk the rumor. Professor Barry Hollander in the Grady College of Journalism and analyzed data from a survey of more than 2,400 people taken at three points during the campaign to see if exposure to news media helped correct misperceptions about Obama's faith.

"With most forms of political knowledge, media should theoretically make you more accurate," Hollander said. "In this case, had no effect. Ultimately, the message here is that people believe what they want to believe."

Hollander, whose study will appear in the Journal of Media and Religion, explained that his findings are consistent with psychological studies on selective memory that show that people tend to discount facts that are inconsistent with their preexisting beliefs. People are also less likely to remember information that conflicts with their beliefs.

Because the survey asked the same questions of the same people in October, September and November of 2008, Hollander was able to explore how people's beliefs changed over time. The percentage of respondents who believed that Obama was Muslim stayed roughly the same over the study period, shifting from 20.2 percent in September to 19.7 percent in November.

"The percentage of people that perceived Obama as Muslim really didn't change that much, but there was movement among those people," Hollander said. "So some people who perceived Obama as Christian early in the study shifted to perceiving him as Muslim and some did the opposite—went from an incorrect perception to a correct perception."

He found that more than 60 percent of people who believed Obama was Muslim in September maintained that belief in November. Ninety percent of those who answered that Obama was Christian maintained their belief, but the remaining 10 percent who answered correctly in September shifted to an incorrect answer in November.

Hollander found that respondents who were younger, less educated, less politically interested, politically conservative, and believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible were more likely to be among those who shifted from a perception of Obama as Christian to a perception of Obama as Muslim. For these groups of people, he found, exposure to news media did nothing to improve their political knowledge.

"These are groups of people who are generally distrustful of the mainstream media," Hollander said. "So therefore journalists telling them that this is not true could actually have the opposite effect and make them more likely to believe the rumor."

Hollander points out that a third of religion stories during the study period focused on correcting the rumor about Obama's faith. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain publicly corrected the rumor in a televised town hall meeting and many conservative talk show hosts dismissed the rumor. But it still persists, and Hollander said that similar cases of selective memory are likely to become more common in the future.

"As the audience for mainstream news shrinks and as TV news becomes more partisan, I suspect we're going to see more cases like this," Hollander said. "I think this is one of those great examples that demonstrate that the best efforts of journalists sometimes fail."

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lewando
4.7 / 5 (6) Mar 10, 2010
Two points missing from the article:
1. No amount of fact-checking can reveal what is in the man's heart.
2. People are inclined to beleive darn near anything if there is no personal risk associated with being wrong.
mikehevans
4.1 / 5 (9) Mar 10, 2010
I agree with Jimmy Carter. Most of the folks who believe that Obama is a Muslim, socialist, or Hitlerite are actually racists. They don't like or trust him because they don't like or trust the African-Americans they come into contact with in their everyday life (in most cases a very small number).
marjon
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 10, 2010
According to Islam, Obama is Muslim. His father was Muslim therefore he is Muslim.
The only choice Obama has, according to Islam, is to be a practicing Muslim or an apostate.
The punishment for apostasy in Islam is death.
marjon
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 10, 2010
I agree with Jimmy Carter. Most of the folks who believe that Obama is a Muslim, socialist, or Hitlerite are actually racists. They don't like or trust him because they don't like or trust the African-Americans they come into contact with in their everyday life (in most cases a very small number).

The real racists are people like yourself. Many people, including myself, have the upmost respect for Clarence Thomas, Rice, Thomas Sowell, etc.
I truly believe it is the content of character, not the color of skin.
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2010
'We' know and write to these characters and authors because they write to us. Other cultures flaunt only their skin color.
lewando
4.3 / 5 (6) Mar 10, 2010
This may even be a manifestation of a political tactic: constantly accuse your opponent of being something that you don't want him to be, like Muslim, socialist, or communist. Your opponent will then have to supress any Muslim, socialist, or communist behaviors to not give you the satisfaction of being correct. If your opponent is Muslim, socialist, or communist, having to maintain a charade will annoy him greatly, keeping him off his game. If your opponent is not M,s, or c, he will still be annoyed, as a segment of society will be locked into their "belief". It is a win-win for those who employ this tactic.
Birger
3 / 5 (2) Mar 11, 2010
Slinging mud and hoping some of it will stick is an old tactic that is still practised because it works (I recommend the TV documentary about Lee Atwater)...I recall an earlier article at Physorg.com that mentioned how people are ready to believe the worst of those who are perceived as an antagonistic group.
In other words (example from USA), if you don't like X, you will be willing to believe they want to have death panels kill granny and turn her into Soylent Green.
Another example, from Sweden this time; voters of the socialist block often believe center-right parties genuinely want to increase unemployment just for the hell of it.
It does not help that American rhetoric tradition is much derived from law, with its inherently antagonistic relationships between speakers.

In countries like Sweden, it is not quite as bad, since there is a long tradition of consensus building. If your rhetoric is too crude, your political rivals will be less willin to make a deal in the future.
dcap78
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 11, 2010
I don't know what to think of obama's religion. He probably was raised Muslim but changed his beliefs to Christianity to appeal to the American people. Muslim and Christian beliefs are really not that different. No I don't like obama, but it is not because of his skin color. I disagree with his politics. He was the most liberal senator in history.
JayK
3.5 / 5 (4) Mar 11, 2010
Marjon has respect for some African Americans, therefore marjon couldn't possibly be racist. I believe there is a term for this debate tactic, claiming that one has a (black/gay/jewish) friend in order to ignore criticism that certain policies and practices are inherently racist. It certainly doesn't help marjon's case.

As for dcap78, you might want to actually research that whole "most liberal senator" thing before trotting it out as a meme. Before that, Kerry was the most liberal senator or was it Edwards, or was it Kennedy, or was it..... You've bought into the useless tactic of framing without ever actually weighing the credibility of the framer.
croghan27
5 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2010
Does it make a difference if Obama is Muslim or not? Keith Ellison is an out and out Muslim - he swore allegiance on the Qu'ran.

Yet he seems to be doing what his constituents want as Congressman. If it makes any difference he beat a 'white' GOP Jew to take his seat. He was supported by American Jewish World, the area's largest Jewish newspaper.

It seems some people manage to ignore religion/race when voting.
marjon
1 / 5 (1) Mar 14, 2010
Marjon has respect for some African Americans, therefore marjon couldn't possibly be racist. I believe there is a term for this debate tactic, claiming that one has a (black/gay/jewish) friend in order to ignore criticism that certain policies and practices are inherently racist. It certainly doesn't help marjon's case.

As for dcap78, you might want to actually research that whole "most liberal senator" thing before trotting it out as a meme. Before that, Kerry was the most liberal senator or was it Edwards, or was it Kennedy, or was it..... You've bought into the useless tactic of framing without ever actually weighing the credibility of the framer.

Just pointing out how quick 'liberals' are to accuse others of racism.
I do not care about the race of anyone. I do care about the content of their character.
redwing1
1 / 5 (3) Mar 21, 2010
Barack obamas real name is barry sotoro that is a fact he is Muslim as a matter of record goto infowars.com for for the proof.