Sept. 17 2010 12:00 AM

An MSU researcher links racial identity, mass media and Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim

Smear campaigns are a virulent part of American politics nowadays. A new, first-of-its-kind study suggests there may be more to their success than simply the public’s ignorance.

Using the allegations that President Obama is Muslim and a socialist, Spee Kosloff, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at MSU, suggests that people’s opinions are heavily influenced by their motivation to sustain their own group identity of race. This group bias allows them to be manipulated, even through the subtlest of reminders, like political smears. And who is doing the manipulating? Why, mass media of course, Kosloff says.

Research began in 2008 prior to the presidential election. It consisted of four studies — three before the election and one after. The studies examined both conscious and unconscious acceptance of smears. The results have been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In the conscious studies, participants were shown blogs alleging Obama to be a Muslim and a socialist.

The unconscious trials were based on subliminal cues. In the month prior to the election, for example, surveyors asked participants to talk about their race. In some cases, Kosloff said, that was enough to establish an association between Obama and Muslims.

The tests provided many expected judgments, but also some unexpected turns, Kosloff said. He wasn’t surprised to find that people with strong party ties were more heavily influenced by smear campaigns, but he was shocked at the magnitude one’s race had on the willingness to believe smear campaigns. In many ways, the “us vs. them” mentality in people is enough to drive their misconceptions, he said.

“I was surprised at how subtle reminders of an individual’s own race were sufficient to increase their belief in political smears,” he said.

Participants who identified themselves as independents proved particularly vulnerable to manipulation. In the third study alone, a subtle reminder of race was enough to increase independents’ belief in anti-Obama smears from 38 percent to 55 percent.

Kosloff also hefted the blame onto an “irresponsible” media culture that perpetuates such lies. He hopes the media takes it personally.

While recognizing the difficulty most media sources would face in asking people to look at them critically, Kosloff said people need to scrutinize their media sources a bit more heavily, and media sources need to change.

“The media’s responsibility should be to spread the word that we are susceptible to believing false rumors,” Kosloff said. “Such efforts might disseminate the fact that people’s belief in these lies is not just biasing.”