Archive for Sunday, May 11, 2008

Web fuels, facilitates new politics of rumor-mongering

May 11, 2008


— Some things about Barack Obama rub some voters the wrong way.

"We don't need a Muslim," said Jannay Smith, a retiree from Kokomo, Ind. "Who's to say if he gets in there what he'll do?"

Added Steve Shallenberger, a Kokomo electrician: "He's just calling himself a Christian because he knows that's what we in Indiana want to hear."

Then there's Sherry Richey, also from Kokomo: "He wouldn't put his hand on the Bible; he wanted the Quran. He won't put his hand over his heart during the anthem or say the Pledge of Allegiance. He's too un-American."

All of these slurs on Obama are categorically untrue.

Obama, the front-running Democratic presidential candidate, is a Christian, has never been a Muslim, swore his Senate oath on the Bible, says the pledge and generally puts his hand over his heart when he sings the national anthem.

So why were people aware enough of current events to attend political rallies in the days leading up to the Indiana primary saying such things?

They'd been misled by the Internet.

New world

In the ugly new world of online political rumor-mongering, aggressive Googling and e-mailing allow anyone to join the cacophonous misinformation campaign against a politician - in this case, Obama.

Dirty tricks have been a part of politics for as long as there's been politics. But the Internet has taken "the old-fashioned slanderous whispering campaign to a completely new level," said Brooks Jackson, the director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check, a nonpartisan organization that monitors the truthfulness of political discussion. "They are more dangerous and more insidious."

E-mails falsely claiming that Obama is a Muslim, that he took the oath of office on a Quran and that he refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance have stormed inboxes. A newer e-mail has a picture, allegedly of Obama posing with his African family, with the title "Say Hi to the next potential first family."

In addition, virulently racist e-mails are making the rounds, too.

"These things have a heft to them that gives them a seeming credibility that a verbal rumor wouldn't have," Jackson said. "You can replicate them infinitely. We've all got crazy relatives or friends that are sure they're right and the world's wrong. They just blast them out."

Trying to trace origins

The anonymous nature of the Internet also makes the origins of the allegations impossible to trace, Jackson said.

Although virtually every allegation about Obama's religion and patriotism has been debunked, the lies remain in the political bloodstream, a virus that Obama and his supporters can't kill.

Experts say they stay alive because they reinforce stereotypes and some voters' assumptions. That Obama doesn't wear a flag pin, for instance, helps feed some voters' darker suspicions. There's a real video that shows him singing the national anthem without his hand over his heart. His name, Barack Hussein Obama, gives some foundation - if a false one - to the Muslim fears.

Still, it hasn't hurt too much: Obama is almost certainly the Democratic presidential nominee. "He's proven to be pretty resilient," said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at Kansas University.

Addressing the Internet rumors at a January debate, Obama said: "Fortunately, the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for."

Obama isn't the only victim. Last week, in a dirty trick that couldn't have occurred in the pre-YouTube age, a video ricocheted through cyberspace that appeared to show Clinton adviser Mickey Kantor using slurs and obscenities to describe Indiana people in a documentary about the 1992 election - potential political dynamite in a tightly contested election.

A link to the video arrived in a reporter's e-mail inbox, along with the admonition "You must report this. It will change the election." Within an hour, the Clinton campaign issued a statement from the filmmaker saying it was bogus: The video had been doctored, by attack artists unknown.


Robert bickers 9 years, 10 months ago

  1. Being called a Muslim is a slur? How'd this one get by the PC police?2. Obama's not the only candidate affected by web-spread rumors. A little less politicking would have helped the article.

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