Like a deal that sounds too good to be true, 99 percent of all email forwards (and all three of the above examples) are completely false. And yet, just like Nigerian 419 scams, these forwards trick people into sending them on to friends. So often, in fact, that there's a website called Break the Chain set up specifically to debunk Internet urban legends.
Why do so many smart people who normally catch a friend's spoken lie extend the lifespan of these silly scams by sending them on? One reason is that the best forwards tap into already held beliefs--like that a fancy department store would rip off its customers. They also mix the right levels of detail and newsworthiness (a "recent" Newsweek article and Jay Leno's non-political reputation) to appear credible. So in a time of stretched-thin 24/7 news coverage, some of us are conditioned to believe whatever we see on TV or the Internet, especially if it fits with what we want to believe.
The success of fake email forwards is one reason why I'm worried about Barack Obama's chances to win the White House this November. And then a June 30th Washington Post article about how false anti-Obama rumors are attracting believers in a small Ohio town crystallized my fears. Besides the article's lede, which snidely paints Findlay-resident Jim Peterman as a backwater bumpkin who buys cheap tourist trinkets on his vacations, this is the line that caught my attention:
Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate's background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possible gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.The article describes how Peterman is under pressure from friends and relatives who feed him false rumors about Obama's religion and background, many propagated by talk radio and the Internet. Voting for Obama, these people tell Peterman, would be surrendering the United States to the enemy. Confused by all the conflicting accounts of Obama's he hears, Peterman tells the Post reporter, "I'm almost starting to feel like the best choice is not voting at all."
With his dark skin and Indonesian upbringing, Obama's exotic past makes him a prime target for attacks that piggyback on hot-button issues like the American flag, Muslim terrorists, and illegal immigration. You don't have to be racist to believe the lies (although they provides a good cover for bigots), just narrow-minded enough to not know any better (like the easy-to-fall for tale of a $250 cookie recipe). And for people who can't imagine voting a black man to be president, these rumors, however false they know them to be, give them a convenient escape clause without appearing racist. 'He's probably a Christian like he says, but what if he's lying?' the rumor-fed logic goes. A few weeks ago I heard a former Clinton supporter named Charles on NPR-broadcast political roundtable sneer that "Obama" and "Osama" have just one letter different between them. He also remarked that Obama's middle name is Hussein, and he comes from a Muslim family. He couldn't vote for Obama, he said, even after he voted for Hillary in the New Hampshire primary.
The Washington Post article got slammed for extrapolating the views of a single Findlay resident to spoil the the town's image, but I don't think the reporter missed the mark. He needed a place to represent the rumor war against Obama, and he found that message resonating in Findlay.
And you don't need to be a conspiracy wing nut--like the type that believes Israel's Mossad executed the 9/11 attacks--to bite on these falsehoods. The Obama rumors circulate in more mainstream circles, and even get occasionally airings on FOX News. Every controversial issue these days needs to have two sides, and the view of Obama as a Muslim sleeper-agent is just the slightly exaggerated opposition to the Democratic candidate's official position. This is why historians smartly refuse to "debate" Holocaust deniers and why creationism merits no official scientific discussion; to do so gives legitimacy to a preposterous position.
What can Obama do to counter the word-of-mouth insurgency against his reputation? Create a war room to fight back against the rumors, as Obama's Fight The Smears campaign is doing? Get everyone to read his autobiographies? That would help, but a woman quoted in the Post article said that even after she hands Obama doubters his books, they refuse to read them.
"They just want to believe what they believe," she said. "Nothing gets through to them."Or, we can trust the intelligence of the average American voter to separate the rumors and lies from the real story. However, if you've ever received an obviously fake email forward from a friend with the breathless note, "I think it's important you read this," that hope doesn't bode well for an Obama victory.