Facts don't get in the way of Web political rumors
SAN FRANCISCO – With just days to go before the election, gossip, hearsay, innuendo and smears are flying through the Internet as gadflies and rumormongers hope to sway voters before they head to the polls.
"It's a lot of mud being slung, it's understandable, but I think it's still kind of sad," said Nick DiFonzo, a psychologist and rumor expert at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York.
Candidates and their campaigns are circulating negative bits of information in mainstream venues, raising questions about their opponents in speeches and dropping sour hints in their advertisements. But only on the Internet can entirely false rumors persist, stories told without back up, persistently bouncing from one blog to another.
Some have been out there for years, despite repeated rebuttals from the campaigns. Others surfaced only this past week. And they range from the truly silly (Weekly World News Web site: "OCTOBER SURPRISE: ALIEN ENDORSES MCCAIN!") to the multitude of bloggers who report results even though votes have yet to be counted: ("Has John McCain Won Florida?" asked the Red State Web site Thursday.)
Most voters say they have already made their decisions about who they want to have as their next president. So the Internet rumors are targeted at the shrinking pool of undecided voters who are still waiting, wondering and potentially still gathering information.
"The online rumors can affect their last-minute decisions," said UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Anthony Pratkanis, who researches propaganda and social influence.
Here's a chance to vet the Net:
The Rumor: The Huffington Post Web site, among others, has reported that John McCain used an obscene word to describe his wife Cindy during his 1992 Senate campaign.
The Facts: This is unsubstantiated. Author and blogger Cliff Schecter initiated this rumor this spring online and then in a book called "The Real McCain." He wrote that three reporters told him that in response to some teasing, McCain told his wife: "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop," with an expletive. Schecter has not provided any evidence this happened, and he hasn't identified the three reporters who he says spoke to him on condition of anonymity.
The Rumor: Barack Obama isn't a citizen, suggested bloggers at the Free Republic Web site. Or if he is, he's hiding his birth certificate for some mysterious reason. Or if he's shared his birth certificate, it's a fake because he's lying about who his real father is. New iterations on this theme pop up almost everyday at various Web sites.
The Facts: Obama plainly is a citizen because he was born in the U.S. In response to the allegations, Obama's campaign in June posted the Illinois senator's birth certificate on his campaign Web site, http://fightthesmears.com/articles/5/birthcertificate. The nonpartisan Web site Factcheck.org examined the original document and said it does have a raised seal and the usual evidence of a genuine document. On Friday, officials in Hawaii said they had personally verified that the health department holds Obama's original birth certificate. Judges in Washington state, Ohio and Pennsylvania have dismissed lawsuits challenging his citizenship.
The Rumor: Daily Kos Web site, among others, has said Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's son Trig, born in April, was actually born to her 17-year-old daughter Bristol.
The Facts: Unsubstantiated. After McCain tapped Palin as his running mate, bloggers accused Palin of faking a pregnancy to cover up for her daughter's accidental pregnancy. As proof, bloggers said Palin hadn't appeared pregnant before Trig was born, and that she said she traveled from Texas to Alaska while she was in labor. In an effort to rebut the rumors, the campaign announced that Bristol was, in fact, pregnant. After all, how could Trig be Bristol's baby if she was pregnant only months later? The announcement slowed the rumors, but didn't stop the ongoing questions about Trig's parentage. Even this past week, bloggers were demanding Sarah Palin's medical records to prove she gave birth to Trig.
The Rumor: 1960s radical William Ayers wrote Obama's autobiography "Dreams From My Father."
The Facts: Unsubstantiated. Obama says he didn't meet Ayers until 1995. The book was published in 1995, which means most of it would have been written in 1994. Blogger Jack Cashill has been floating this rumor at the World Net Daily Web site — and it has moved on to many more — hinting that the book's "fierce, succinct and tightly coiled social analysis" was closer to Ayers' style than Obama's. "Utter hogwash," said Obama organizers.
— privately — that the ideological makeup of the country probably