TOPICS > Politics

Candidates Fight to Disprove Smears, Set Record Straight to Voters

June 30, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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This presidential campaign is different than previous years - it's the first in which campaigns are forced to confront nearly constant Web attacks and rumors from both amateurs and organized partisans. Media experts discuss the trend.
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GWEN IFILL: The campaign wars are playing out on an entirely new front this time around, as the most enduring and damaging charges and countercharges flourish on the Web. The information, spread through streaming video and e-mail chains — and much of it untrue — is the handiwork of both amateurs and organized partisans, and they won’t go away.

WEB VIDEO NARRATOR: Can Americans elect a man with not one, not two, but three Islamic names?

GWEN IFILL: This anti-Obama video, for instance, is one of the most circulated on the Web. Its false claim that Obama is a Muslim was created by a producer of evangelical Christian programming.

The Internet can be a booster’s megaphone, as well as a boon for political fundraising. A recent Pew Project survey found 46 percent of all Americans go online to get and to share political information.

But lies, falsehoods and myths have also spread virally in hit after hit after hit, thanks to cheap editing programs, homemade movies, and video-sharing services like YouTube.

Both campaigns are fighting back, Obama through a Web page called fightthesmears.com, and the McCain campaign through its own “truth squad” expected to start up soon.

Snopes.com, a site dedicated to exposing mythmaking, devotes an entire section to debunking Obama rumors. Factcheck.org and Politifact.com do much of the same, but Obama is not the only viral victim.

REV. ROD PARSLEY, Televangelist: Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends, through violence, to conquer the world.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: And I’m very honored today to have one of the truly great leaders of America, a moral compass and spiritual guide, Pastor Rod Parsley.

GWEN IFILL: This anti-McCain video juxtaposed anti-Islam statements made by evangelical pastor, the Reverend Rod Parsley, with statements of McCain praising Parsley.

It was the work of 64-year-old film director Robert Greenwald, whose videos have been viewed on YouTube more than 5 million times. That’s more people than have watched the McCain campaign’s own videos.

But the work of amateurs can be just as damaging. This site from a North Carolina professor shows pro-Obama videos and anti-McCain ones, while this one, also created by an amateur, does the reverse.

E-mail traffic has amplified much of the misinformation. This missive, which started circulating in January 2007, asserts Obama was educated at a radical Islamic school in Indonesia, was sworn into the Senate on a Koran, and turns his back to the flag.

All of the charges are untrue, difficult to track down, and impossible to shut down. But for the candidates, as well as for the people who turn to their laptops for information, the viral cat is out of the bag.

Getting information from the Web

Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post
[W]e're talking about ordinary people who have cheap editing software that they can just, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you know, mash a video up together and, three hours later, post it on YouTube.

GWEN IFILL: So how do these rumors get started, and do they make a difference? For more on that, we turn to Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, she's senior vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research; and Republican pollster David Winston, he's the founder and president of the Winston Group; and also Jose Antonio Vargas, a reporter for the Washington Post who covers the convergence of politics and the Internet.

Welcome to you all.

Jose Vargas, may I start with you and ask, how widespread is this? Is there any way to tell?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS, The Washington Post: Well, I mean, I think the Pew report two weeks ago that said fully 46 percent of Americans are getting information from the Web, what's interesting there is that these are people who are already activated, I mean, the ones that are giving money, the ones that are passing information around, and the ones that have really made a difference, I think, in this election.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that people are -- are we talking just a small subset of the very active? Or are we talking about ordinary folks who sit on their front porches and pass this information around, as well?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: No, I mean, we're talking about ordinary people who have cheap editing software that they can just, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you know, mash a video up together and, three hours later, post it on YouTube. And before you know it, it's been viewed by 2 million people.

GWEN IFILL: Anna Greenberg, how different is this than we have seen in past election cycles? Is there something different going on? It feels like that.

ANNA GREENBERG, Democratic Pollster: Well, it's different because your ability to spread scurrilous rumors is exponentially higher with the Internet. You know, it just takes, you know, forward an e-mail, and send something to thousands and thousands and millions.

But in some ways, it's very similar to the sorts of tactics we've seen in the past. In the past, through direct mail or leaflets put on a windshield in the parking lot of a church, you know, a church, or even, you know, automated calls saying that John McCain has a black child, which we saw in 2000.

So these sorts of rumors have been spread in every campaign. They're just easier to spread, and you can spread them more widely now.

GWEN IFILL: It does seem that way. David Winston, is this something that is affecting one candidate more than the other? It also seems that way, kind of.

DAVID WINSTON, Republican Pollster: I'm not sure at this point. I mean, I think one of the things that's interesting about this is the sort of egalitarian nature, the fact that now everybody can participate more easily in the democratic process.

The good news is that anybody, as Anna was saying, can forward an e-mail or put something online. The bad news is everybody can do that, even people who, in fact, are going to potentially harm the political discourse or create something very negative.

At this point, I think what you're watching is both campaigns are learning how to deal with this new way of doing discourse, and it's huge. I mean, whether it was watching Romney struggle with the fact that on YouTube you had the Romney-Kennedy debates and just the ability to sort of put new information out there...

Filtering truth from fiction

Anna Greenberg
Democratic pollster
I also think there's a challenge to communicate broadly around who you are, what your values are, so that you're inoculated, to some degree, against these rumors.

GWEN IFILL: But the difference between new information and false information seems to be the line.

DAVID WINSTON: Agreed. No, and what you're getting back to is the sort of classic John Stuart Mill. Given enough free discourse, ultimately people themselves will learn how to sort of filter out the false discourse.

But what you're watching is the American public in this campaign begin to learn how to do that. Have they learned how to do it effectively? No. But I think we'll watch them do that in this campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Jose, do you see any signs that Americans are beginning to learn how to filter out what's scurrilous and what's true?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Yes. I mean, actually, there's a couple of points that I wanted to add to the discussion. And I think what's new this time around -- I mean, as we know, Howard Dean was the first Internet candidate, in many ways, four years ago, right?

I mean, what's interesting is the rise of social networks. Like, for example, the anti-McCain videos that are being produced by Robert Greenwald over in California, at the very end of these videos, they say, "Psst, pass it around," right, this idea that, after somebody views it on YouTube, send it to like another friend, through Facebook or through YouTube or through e-mails, and it gets circulated around.

I think that's what's really new in this process. People, in their own social networks, online and offline are affecting how they think. And I think this idea that now, because of the information out there, the ocean of information that's out there, people are really left to their own devices to figure out what the truth is.

I mean, the fact of the matter is everybody in the media has said that Obama is not a Muslim. He's a Christian. Yet there are still people who believe that. So how do you explain that? I mean, that's something that I think we're trying to figure out.

GWEN IFILL: Anna Greenberg, it's kind of like shadowboxing, isn't it? How do you -- if you say it's not true and it still lives, what do you do with that? And who does it?

ANNA GREENBERG: Right. Well, first of all, you know, both of the campaigns, but the Obama campaign has set up an infrastructure to respond, but there's also a pretty well-organized progressive blogosphere that's responding and independent organizations, like Media Matters.

So I think that, you know, the progressive side and the Obama campaign are pretty well-organized. But I also think there's a challenge to communicate broadly around who you are, what your values are, so that you're inoculated, to some degree, against these rumors.

I would say that I do think that some people can sort out truth and fiction and some people can't. And I think the real danger are the kind of low-information voters who decide late, who don't pay very close attention, who are maybe little unsophisticated in how they use the Internet.

That's the real danger for these rumors, not the partisans, not the people who care about politics. They know. In fact, they all sort of have cognitive dissonance. If they get a piece of information they don't like, they assume it's not true.

That's the real danger. And so I'm not convinced that people really have learned how to sort it all through yet.

Adjusting to a new medium

Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post
[T]he rise of the blogosphere, especially the liberal blogosphere, is because of the fact that they didn't, they don't trust the mainstream media.

GWEN IFILL: As far as partisan pushback goes, Anna Greenberg just said there is quite a world out there in the liberal blogosphere, which is pushing back. Does it exist on the conservative side, as well?

DAVID WINSTON: Well, you're beginning to see it get developed. And you're seeing, particularly out of the 2004 Bush campaign, some specific individuals who've sort of taken it upon themselves to really begin to develop the sort of blogosphere, in terms of conservatives. It's probably more highly developed, in terms of on the liberal side.

But I want to go back to one point, and I guess two elements. One, it is clear that where people are getting their news from traditionally have been locations like here, radio, magazines. And what you're beginning to see through social networking is they're getting a lot of their news from their friends, right? That's a very different context.

And, again, going to what Anna was saying, the filtering process, in terms of how do you then accommodate that or know what's real and what's not, is something you're watching the public going through, in terms of understanding.

I happen to be a little bit more optimistic than Anna here. I think the public can figure out a way to manage that.

But I think there will be a learning period that they're going to have to go through. Ultimately, I think it will make for a better democracy. In the short run, we're probably going to have some hitches on the way.

GWEN IFILL: Jose Vargas, does that make people like you and me obsolete at this point? People are listening to their friends. They're not listening to mainstream media anymore?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, I mean, I think -- I mean, the rise of the blogosphere, especially the liberal blogosphere, is because of the fact that they didn't, they don't trust the mainstream media, right? I mean, that was the original intent of why blogosphere erupted, especially during the run-up to the war.

But there's another point here that I wanted to bring up. I remember watching the Reverend Wright, one of the first clips of "goddamn America," 30-second sound bites started showing up on cable channels. I remember thinking to myself, "OK, this is really interesting."

Because if sound bite politicking still ruled -- and, in many ways, it still does -- I actually thought that would have hurt Obama more. I mean, it can still hurt him come November, but what's interesting on YouTube, Obama posted a 37-minute response, that speech in Philadelphia. It's been viewed about 4.5 million times.

So what you have, I think, is the battle between sound-bite politics versus sound-blast politics, which is what you see on the Internet. There's all this information, and people can find context, people can put the puzzle together themselves.

But, again, let me make sure I say this, by the way: Not everybody is on the Internet. So you're right. A lot of people are, you know, getting this information second-hand, third-hand. They can't go on YouTube and look at themselves. They can't go on news sites.

I mean, I think it's a really interesting dynamic, what we're seeing in this cycle.

GWEN IFILL: The degree to which it leaps from the Internet onto the front porch and never off again, I suppose?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Exactly.

Web works for and against

David Winston
Republicanc pollster
[S]o I think what we're learning as a country how to do is, so how do you deal with what's truthful and make sure that that gets heard, and how do you deal with what's scurrilous and should not be repeated?

GWEN IFILL: But I wonder, Anna Greenberg, when you hear this description above what it is that's happening here, whether there is an upside, whether people can go and get context, get the correct information, because of the Web, even as much as the Web is sometimes guilty of circulating it?

ANNA GREENBERG: Of course there's an upside. And one of the things that is really exciting about the campaign is the involvement of people who are younger.

And if you look at the main way they are participating in politics, it is online, whether it's forwarding videos, you know, friending a candidate. About three-quarters of people...

GWEN IFILL: Friending a candidate, for our few viewers who are not online, is a social networking tool?

ANNA GREENBERG: It is. It's a Facebook tool. And you friend, you know, Barack Obama or, I assume, John McCain has that. I don't know. I haven't been on it. I assume he has a profile.

So, yes, so that's incredibly exciting. And what I -- but I think the issue of being able to sort through the lies and the falsehoods and the rumors from sort of generically finding information that helps you figure out who you're going to vote for, those are two different issues.

And, again, where the rumors are dangerous is when it does make its way out of the -- you know, onto people's front porches, to your grandmother who hears third-hand, and she doesn't know how to go online to figure out whether it's true or not and is confused by it.

That's where I think it gets really dangerous. So upside, absolutely, but there's definitely a downside.

GWEN IFILL: And whose responsibility is it to try to take the danger out of this? Is it the mainstream media? Is it the candidates? Or is it the voters themselves?

DAVID WINSTON: I think there's a combination of all three. And I think that's what we're in the process of learning how to manage. I mean, again, when everybody has access, they can say anything they want and some of this is clearly going to be scurrilous.

And so I think what we're learning as a country how to do is, so how do you deal with what's truthful and make sure that that gets heard, and how do you deal with what's scurrilous and should not be repeated, and how do you manage that?

Again, going to Anna's point, there are a lot of people who still aren't on the Internet -- although that is getting much, much smaller -- but, still, that's just the process of working through it.

Ultimately, I think you'll see that we'll come up with a way to do that. However, in this particular campaign cycle, like I said, we'll probably see some successes and failures on the way.

GWEN IFILL: David Winston, Anna Greenberg, Jose Antonio Vargas, thank you all three very much.