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WEB SCOUT / DAVID SARNO

FW: Open this with skepticism

June 11, 2008|DAVID SARNO

RUMORS have always traveled fast, but when it comes to politics, the whispering campaigns and defamatory leaflets of yesteryear don't hold a candle to the button that beats them all.

"Forward": the marvelous technology that allows truths and untruths alike to be propagated widely, instantly, and at no cost to the sender.

Thanks to Forward-thinking citizens, the online rumors are flying like no campaign season before. Dozens and even hundreds of different e-mail chain letters -- most targeting Sen. Barack Obama -- are being circulated in the Internet's muggy back channels, where context suffers and falsehoods flourish. Add in the parts of the political blogosphere that survive on speculation and unsourced hearsay and you have a petri dish capable of growing such vivid rumors that the best of them actually make it into the mouths of the Washington press corps -- without so much as a factoid to back them up.

At Snopes.com, the urban legends clearinghouse run by a couple in the San Fernando Valley, Obama's page has 18 entries, only one of which Snopes determined to be true. Of the rest, Snopes rated 11 false, four partly true and two undetermined. The same pattern holds true at PolitiFact.com, a project of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. In its "Chain E-mails" section, 21 of the 25 e-mails they've reviewed are marked "Barely True," "False" or "Pants on Fire." Of those, 2 out of 3 were aimed at Obama and the remainder at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Why Obama is such a magnet for outlandish Web allegations, while Clinton and especially Sen. John McCain have gotten off easier, invites some tricky questions. No one I talked to for this article wanted to say that the candidate's race, an area that can bring out all kinds of rumor-fueling fears and resentments, was the primary factor. And maybe it wasn't: The number of Americans online has grown plenty since 2004, and astronomically since 2000 -- there are a lot more great-aunts sending around e-mail petitions in big, colorful fonts. The Internet is now without a doubt the most effective rumor mill mankind has ever devised. But it's hard to ignore that the rumors about Obama tend to have something to do with his being black.

A glance at the Obama-related canards reveals that they mostly fall into three categories, which sometimes overlap: race, religion and patriotism. Part of the odd nature of Internet rumors which holds true here is that even after they've been debunked in multiple places and for some time, they continue to make the rounds.

Bill Adair, PolitiFact's editor, likened the chain e-mails to virus-like "organisms," calling them "a resilient form of communication that resists scrutiny" and is essentially unfiltered.

"It's not like Hotmail is going to say, 'Well, we're not going to deliver that message because it's wrong,' " Adair said. "That message is going to get through, and it's going to be up to the reader to determine if it's true or not."

Obama's campaign has set up a rumor-busting task force that maintains a Web page at factcheck.barackobama.com to address some of these stubborn allegations. One section, titled "Obama Is Not and Has Never Been a Muslim," collates several articles from national press outlets, including two from The Times, that weigh against the claim. Another section, "Obama Is a Patriot Who Loves His Flag and His Country," has an even larger collection of supporting excerpts.

When asked about the churn of questionable rumors, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor was not shy about noting that "disinformation campaigns are the hallmark of some of the most vicious campaigns on the Republican side. It's not something that's new to this campaign, but it may be getting particular attention this round."

"It's frankly disconcerting when the press corps start asking about rumors that have no basis in fact," he added, "But it's something that we realized early on would be a problem."

Last week, one such dubious story made the rounds online -- but this time it was the blogosphere that was cultivating it. Larry Johnson, a former CIA employee and national security analyst, wrote several times on his No Quarter blog about the existence of a videotape that purportedly showed Michelle Obama using the word "whitey."But, as Reason magazine's David Weigel pointed out in multiple critiques of Johnson's information, Johnson had no direct evidence of the video. He had not actually seen it, he wrote, but rather had "heard from five separate sources who have spoken directly with people who have seen the tape."

As Weigel told me over the phone, in the world of professional journalism, "no one who didn't want to just get fired would source a story like that."

Weigel also noted in his post that Johnson's account of the tape's key details -- where it took place and which famous personages were in it -- changed over the course of several days, but Johnson's insistence on the tape's existence did not. (I couldn't reach Johnson for a comment.)

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