Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama has won the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan in his bid to become the first black president of the United States. His campaign is financed by Hugo Chavez, the vocally anti-American leader of Venezuela. Obama is a Muslim. And possibly, he is the anti-Christ.
So say e-mails circulating on the Internet, whose importance as a marketplace for the exchange of unverified information, sometimes outlandish ideas and often toxic rumors has exploded over the last decade. It is now playing a key role in American politics. According to a new study, almost half of all Americans use the Internet to follow the presidential election campaign.
Now Obama, who already made political history by becoming the first black American to win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, is making Internet history with a Web site specifically set up to counter rumors about him and his wife Michelle. It is a break with the conventional wisdom that it is counter-productive to respond to rumor and innuendo in the parallel world of cyberspace. Doing so, the thinking goes, gives a rumor an air of legitimacy.
The novel Web site, fightthesmears.com, does not deal with each and every online “discovery” about Obama. A Ku Klux Klan endorsement, Chavez financing, and anti-Christ suspicions are too bizarre to rate a mention. E-mails on these subjects were collated by snopes.com, a Web site that features the “25 Hottest Urban Legends, currently circulating most widely.” Obama e-mails rank No. 2 on the latest list, after e-mails on a computer virus embedded in greeting cards.
To satisfy the curious: the Ku Klux Klan story originated as a spoof in the satirical British publication Daily Squib and gained currency because, as snopes.com put it, “effective satire hews closely to what people are inclined to believe.” Well ... perhaps people on the lunatic fringe. The spoof quoted a clan leader as saying that “anything is better than Hillary Clinton,” the New York senator who lost the primaries to Obama.
Obama’s counter-rumor Web site addresses one of the most widely circulated, and most widely believed, assertions about the candidate: that he is Muslim, attended a radical madrassa (Islamic religious school) and was sworn into the U.S. Senate using the Koran. The Obama-is-a-Muslim theme has been so persistent that 10 percent of American voters are convinced he is, according to a poll in March by the Pew Research Center
The rumor that prompted Obama to set up the site last week involved his wife Michelle. Right-wing bloggers spoke of the existence of a videotape that showed her making an angry speech featuring the word “whitey,” a derogatory term for white people. “No such tape exists,” says the anti-rumor site, “Michelle has not used that word.”
To disprove the notion that Obama was born outside the United States and therefore ineligible to be president, the Web site features a facsimile of his birth certificate, issued by the Department of Health in Honolulu and dated August 8, 1961. (Hawaii became a state in 1959).
The Internet, being an equal opportunity debating forum, was alive with arguments earlier in the year over the eligibility to the highest office in the land of John McCain, Obama’s Republican rival who was born in the then American-controlled Panama Canal Zone adjacent to Panama City. That debate was taken up by heavyweight legal experts in the mainstream media and the answer was that yes, he was eligible.
Obama’s site asks supporters — two-thirds of whom follow politics online — to spot “smears” on the Internet and forward them to the Obama campaign to be dealt with. Will that slow down the rumor mill? For some Americans, his middle name alone — Hussein — is enough to inspire fear and stimulate speculation. One anonymous blogger likened voting for a man called Hussein in 2008 to voting for a candidate called Adolf in 1938.
Judging from the unscientific method of a Google search, Obama is a much hotter topic than McCain — their names throw up 51,200,000 and 33,000,000 references respectively. Obama leads on Facebook, too. The social networking site this week showed him having 993,293 supporters versus McCain’s 145,781.
He is also ahead of McCain by more conventional counts. In the latest Reuters/Zogby public opinion poll since Obama won the Democratic nomination, 47 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Obama if the elections were held now. McCain polled 42 percent. In June 2004, a poll showed nearly the same percentages for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, and George W. Bush, who went on to win.
Four to five months is a long time in a U.S. presidential campaign and a lot can happen between now and November 4. How much of the political hardball that usually marks the final stretch of a presidential race will play out on the Internet? More than ever before.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com