Week of 1.4.08
Anatomy of a Smear
Smear campaigns are nothing new in U.S. politics, but during the 2008 presidential race, the Internet has assumed a bigger role in transmitting misinformation and negative claims about candidates. The lightning speed at which these rumors spread and the lack of scrutiny they receive threaten to seriously undermine public discourse. The good news is that this campaign season the public has access to a slew of fact-checking websites, including FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and Snopes.com that are squelching Internet rumors and separating fact from fiction.
Sorting Fact from Fiction in the 2008 Election Campaign
To illustrate how a rumor based on falsehoods can spread, NOW takes a look at one claim that has received a lot of media attention recently: the "Barack Obama is Muslim" rumor. This unsubstantiated claim originated from chain e-mails that started circulating some time in 2006. They contend that Obama is a Muslim (false) and that Obama attended a radical Muslim school (false). There's also a more recent rumor that Obama did not have his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Timeline of a Smear
2006: The first chain e-mail circulated on the Internet contending that Obama is Muslim. (Politifact and other fact-checking websites have been unable to pinpoint the exact date)
Jan. 17, 2007: A discredited news story from InsightMag.com, "Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background," reported that Obama had attended a madrassa, an Islamic religious school, as a child.
Jan. 19, 2007: Fox News' Fox & Friend First and Fox & Friends highlighted the report from InsightMag in its coverage without discrediting it. The weblog Think Progress noted that Fox even took caller comments about the allegations.
Jan. 20, 2007: New York Post article titled 'Osama' Mud Flies at Obama quoted Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson saying, "We have no connection to this story."
The week of Jan. 20, 2007: CNN, ABC-TV and the Associated Press sent reporters to the school Obama attended and reported that it was not a religious school but a public school.
Jan. 23, 2007: Washington Post article by media columnist Howard Kurtz, "Headmaster Disputes Claim That Obama Attended Islamic School", reported that the school Obama attended was not a religious school but a public school.
Jan 28, 2007: Washington Post editorial, "Sticks, Stones and Mr. Obama; Misleading aspersions about the senator's background only make the perpetrators look bad", criticized the Insight Magazine article.
March, 15, 2007: A Snopes.com website article titled "The Enemy Within" dispelled the claim that Obama is a "radical, ideological Muslim."
Sept. 16, 2007: A photo of Obama that would later be used as the basis for another negative rumor was taken in Indianola, Iowa, at the Harkin Steak Fry, an annual political event hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin. The caption on the Time photo read, "Respect: Senator Barack Obama, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Hillary Clinton and Ruth Harkin stand during the national anthem."
Oct. 2007: The first chain e-mail accompanying some version of an e-mailed photo circulated on the Internet questioning Obama's patriotism based on its contention that Obama refused to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. One of the e-mails read: "He refused to not only put his hand on his heart during the pledge of allegiance, but refused to say the pledge ... how in the hell can a man like this expect to be our next Commander-in-Chief?"
Oct. 27, 2007: Snopes could not find any information substantiating the claim that Obama refused to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. However, they did say that the following claim, "Photograph shows Barack Obama without his hand over his heart while the U.S. national anthem is being played," is true.
Nov. 9, 2007: The St. Petersburg Times publishes an article "E-mail assailing Obama's patriotism misses mark" pointing to the original Time photograph as evidence that the e-mail rumor makes a false claim. The article also discusses the new phenomenon of chain e-mails "ricocheting" around Internet.
Nov. 11, 2007: A video from ABC News confirmed that the photo was taken during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Nov. 29, 2007: The Washington Post publishes an article, "Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him", by political reporter Perry Bacon Jr. exploring the rumors that Obama was Muslim. The article did not explicitly dispel those rumors.
Dec. 9, 2007: In response to "ferocious" criticism from readers and others, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell addresses Bacon's story in a column titled Refuting, or Feeding, the Rumor Mill. She writes: "My problems with the story...were that Obama's connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn't included in the story."
Dec. 13, 2007: Despite being debunked by mainstream news organizations, the claim that Obama didn't place his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance is repeated on Bill O' Reilly's show. In response to a caller who says she's disturbed by Obama's alleged action, O'Reilly doesn't correct her and, according to MediaMatters.org, replies: "I think that Obama needs to answer some questions about his point of view, not only on the USA, but on a lot of things."
Damage Lasts Longer Than Rumors Themselves
Taken together, InsightMag.com's anonymously-sourced report inspired numerous "baseless" accusations about Sen. Barack Obama in the media and widespread coverage from mainstream news sites and other news sources. Whether this rumor had any significant negative impact on Obama's campaign is unclear.
One of the most frustrating things about rumors on the Internet is that it is often impossible to pinpoint their origin, particularly since chain e-mails can come from multiple people. Another challenge is that they circulate under the radar for so long.
But some websites are working to combat rumors with truth and correction. Politifact.com features a "Truth-o-meter" section that examines who laid claim to a rumor, who the rumor is about, the extent to which the rumor is true and what was alleged by the informant. The Truth-o-meter recently dispelled the Obama "hand over his heart rumor" by giving it a "false" rating. Snopes.com, the site with a reputation for debunking urban legends, has a similar system of checking rumors, but they do it through a "ratings key" which allows for more ambiguity in the case of rumors that are partially based on truth, but ultimately incorrect. The audience for these websites remains marginal. Only when major media outlets take it upon themselves to verify a rumor before repeating it or invest resources in debunking it, as CNN did with the Obama-is-Muslim rumor, will the power of unfounded rumors and smear campaigns dissipate.
Sources: Information for this article is based partly on a timeline from MediaMatters.org's timeline of the smear and leads from Politifact.com.