Where did the Web rumors about Obama come from?

McClatchy NewspapersMay 8, 2008 

WASHINGTON — 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.

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."

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 the University of Kansas.

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.

Such efforts quietly infect the body politic via a virtual personal touch.

"People believe things they hear from a trusted source," said Julie Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University. "If you get an e-mail from a close friend or a work colleague or your parents, you're more likely to believe it. That's how word-of-mouth marketing works."

Those in or near the political or journalistic mainstream who traffic in the scum can get tainted. Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton adviser, was criticized after the liberal Huffington Post blog revealed that he was circulating anti-Obama screeds, though there was no claim that he wrote them.

The Blumenthal example shows why it's unlikely that any campaign or political professional is associated with creating the sordid stuff — the fallout would be a political nightmare, Germany said.

In fact, they tend to be the work of committed political amateurs.

One practitioner in Virginia, who hates Obama like a dog hates cats, led a reporter through his efforts. Because the man is a retired clandestine CIA officer, identifying him could endanger officers or operations that remain classified, so McClatchy will not reveal his name.

In late 2006, convinced that an Obama presidency would be disastrous for America, he decided to start an anti-Obama operation. He combed the public record on Obama. He used a couple of allies and informants — half-jokingly dubbing his group "The Crusaders" — to learn about Obama's background, especially his Africa connection and how he came to be the editor of the Harvard Law Review.

He assembled a dossier on Obama, including allegations that Obama attended a madrassa, or Islamic religious school, in his youth in Indonesia.

Then the retired spook tried to get Israeli intelligence officials interested in his Obama dossier. They weren't, to his chagrin. He also shopped it to some foreign reporters. Again, no luck.

He wound up posting some of it on a blog — and where it went from there in the vast world of cyberspace is anybody's guess.

But a few months after the man began his work, the allegation that Obama was educated in a madrassa appeared in an anonymous article in Insight Magazine, an online publication of the Unification Church, in January 2007. It also claimed that Clinton operatives had dug up the information. The article was cited by several conservative commentators, including on Fox News, before it was debunked.

The piece had the markings of what's called a "false-flag" operation: Make a covert operation appear to be the work of another party. And, like many misinformation campaigns, it "takes what you might believe without any factual basis and seen circulating around ...a lot of speculation spun into a story," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA official.

The retired CIA officer, who said that he and his fellow Crusaders have abandoned their effort, said he wasn't the source of the Insight story.

"I might have been a secondhand, or third-hand, or fourth-hand source," he added. "But I don't think so."

In the world of Internet rumors, however, you never really know.

(Steven Thomma contributed.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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