How to start a hoax against a presidential candidate


Hoax complaints against presidential candidates are old ideas. In 1796, Alexander Hamilton paid newspaper editors to print stories saying Thomas Jefferson was atheist. It was a minor theme in that campaign, but after John Adams’ political fortunes foundered on the Alien and Sedition Acts, among other missteps, Hamilton stepped up the attacks in the election of 1800.

Jefferson’s great biographer, Dumas Malone, estimates that by election day, fully half the American electorate believed Jefferson was atheist. Jefferson made a perfect target for such a charge — staunch advocate of religious freedom, he thought it beneath the dignity of a politician to answer such charges at all, so he did not bother to deny them publicly. Ministers in New England told their congregations they would have to hide their Bibles because, as president, Jefferson would send troops to confiscate them.

In a warning to hoaxers, we might hope, Americans elected Jefferson anyway.

Such nefariousness plagues campaigns today, still. Boone Pickens, who helped fund the Swiftboat Veterans’ calumny against war hero John Kerry, has an offer to pay $1 million to anyone who can show the charges false. In a replay of Holocaust denial cases, Pickens refuses to accept any evidence to pay the award, last week turning away the affidavits of the men who were present at the events.

At the Bathtub, we’ve already sampled a crude and steady attempt to brand Hillary Clinton a Marxist with creative editing of a few of her speeches.

The assaults on Barack Obama are already the stuff of legend. The comic strip, “Doonesbury,” is running a story line with a volunteer for the internet rumor stopping part of the campaign, FighttheSmears.com. The smears are real.

Doonesbury strip 6-28-2008

Matthew Most of the Washington Post wrote a lengthy piece in yesterday’s paper, “An attack that came out of the ether,” on the research done by a woman at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, on the origins of the internet hoax that Barack Obama is a Muslim — a rumor so potent that Georgetown University Prof. Edward Luttwak repeated it in a New York Times op-ed article, without the fact checkers catching it (the Times consulted five scholars of Islam who all agreed the foundation for the claim is incorrect).

Danielle Allen has tracked the rumor back to its sources, in a failed campaign against Obama in Illinois and a candidate who admittedly was looking for mud, and one constant sniper at FreeRepublic.com. It’s impressive sleuthing, and the article would be a good departure for study of how media affect campaigns in a government or civics class.

The “how to” list is really very short:

  • Pick an area of a candidate’s life that is not well known. As the Hamilton campaign against Jefferson demonstrates, it’s useful if the candidate does not feature the issue in official biographies, and more useful if the candidate doesn’t respond. Michael Dukakis let several issues slide in his campaign for the presidency, saying that he didn’t think the public would be misled. The public was waiting for a rebuttal.
  • It helps if there is a factoid that is accurate in the rumor. Obama’s father was Muslim. Most Americans were receptive to the false claim that in Islam, a child is considered Muslim unless there is a conversion. A part of the rumor claims Obama was never baptized Christian. Of course, no one has asked to see John McCain’s baptismal papers. One wonders whether a rumor about McCain’s not being born inside the U.S. could get similar traction among voters (McCain was born in Panama while his father was serving in the Panama Canal Zone in the Navy; children of U.S. citizens are automatically U.S. citizens regardless where they are born. The issue was litigated during Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, since Goldwater was born in Arizona before Arizona was a state.)

According to the Post story: [A] search showed that the first mention of the e-mail on the Internet had come more than a year earlier. A participant on the conservative Web site FreeRepublic.com posted a copy of the e-mail on Jan. 8, 2007, and added this line at the end: “Don’t know who the original author is, but this email should be sent out to family and friends.”

Allen discovered that theories about Obama’s religious background had circulated for many years on the Internet. And that the man who takes credit for posting the first article to assert that the Illinois senator was a Muslim is Andy Martin.

Martin, a former political opponent of Obama’s, is the publisher of an Internet newspaper who sends e-mails to his mailing list almost daily. He said in an interview that he first began questioning Obama’s religious background after hearing his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

  • Repeat the claim, as often as possible, to audiences that are inflamed by it. No one would dare make such a claim before an audience of Democratic delegates from the Texas 23rd Senatorial District Democratic Convention, almost 80% of whom were black — at least not at the convention. However, flyers making the charge might show up on windows of cars parked during church services at Christian churches where delegates attend. A speaker at the Republican convention for the same district might not be hooted down. This rumor of Obama’s faith went to right-wing forums known for rumor hospitality, notably Free Republic. In forums at that site, rumors frequently appear to be judged on just how damaging they might be if true, not on their veracity.
  • Repeat the claim, even after denials.

The story is well worth reading. It can help educate us to how to avoid being victims of such rumors in the future.

Tip of the old scrub brush to e-mail correspondent MicahBrown.

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3 Responses to How to start a hoax against a presidential candidate

  1. David C. says:

    Pernicious rumors can take on a life of their own. Consider the story still circulating around the internet that our 14th President ran over an old woman while driving a horse-drawn carriage!

    Like

  2. zhoen says:

    Worked for decades to keep the repeatedly debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion being believed again and again.

    Like

  3. NYC Educator says:

    Great post. Particularly instructive for democrats running for office, though who knows whether they’ll pay attention. I think voters waited in vain from responses not only from Dukaukis, but from Kerry as well.

    Like

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