The picture that launched a million e-mails

A lot of people have found the traditional holidays in recent years increasingly uncomfortable events, especially as the Culture Wars have heated up. The corrosive politics of eliminationism practiced by the right has turned more than a few holiday gatherings into occasions for political brawls and rancorous familial splits.

I’ve been fortunate in that regard; both my parents, though former Goldwater Republicans, have become dyed-in-the-wool Democrats in recent years, mainly because they have seen firsthand how badly conservative rule screws things up. But many of their relatives and longtime friends and neighbors, of course, are not. Dad stays in touch with many of them via e-mail, which means that he gets a lot of right-wing crap. And like a lot of people, he takes much of it at face value without really thinking about it.

Which means that I had a conversation with my Dad this Christmas similar to ones I bet a lot of other people had at home for the holidays with their parents and relatives. You know: the one about Barack Obama being a Muslim who refuses to salute the flag.

It went something like this:

Dad: "Who do you support among the Democratic candidates?"

Me: "Not sure yet. I like Dodd a lot, and I’m warming to Edwards."

"What about Obama?"

"I’d gladly vote for him in the general. I’m not sure he’s the right guy at this time."

"Well, I sure as hell won’t."

"Why not?"

"I’m not sure he’s who he says he is about his religion. And he won’t salute the flag."

[... A brief stunned silence.]

"Well, I don’t know about him saluting the flag. But I know for a fact that the nonsense about him secretly being Muslim is pure horseshit. It’s been completely debunked."

"Well, I have some e-mails that show him standing there, not saluting while everyone else on the stage is saying the Pledge of Allegiance."

"Dad. Think about it. How many times have those mass-forwarded e-mails proven to be complete bullshit?"

He agrees. I promise him I’ll look into the salute thing and find out what the story is.

Sure enough, it was pretty easy to find the source of the rumors: an e-mail forward that included the photo you see at the top of the post. Note, however, that it doesn’t specify what activity was taking place — the assumption is that they’re saying the Pledge. But they’re not.

As Obama explained:

"This was not during the pledge of allegiance," Obama said of the picture taken at Senator Tom Harkin’s, D-Iowa, annual steak fry and first published by Time. "A woman was singing the Star Spangled Banner when that picture was taken.

… "I was taught by my grandfather that you put your hand over your heart during the pledge, but during the Star Spangled Banner, you sing!" Obama said.

… Obama called the circulation of such pictures a "dirty trick" and mentioned other emails accusing him of being "a Muslim plant."

"I have been pledging allegiance since I was a kid," Obama said.

Obama advised his supporters who receive such emails to ignore them.

"Just tell whoever sent it," Obama told the crowd, "they’re misinformed."

You’ll note, of course, that this was debunked back in early November — and we’re still hearing about it over our Christmas breakfasts. So Obama’s advice, sound as it was, clearly isn’t stopping this crap from spreading.

That’s the evil genius of the e-mail forward: Its originators don’t have to give a shit about its being debunked (and you’ll note that in this case, the "debunking" sites like Snopes haven’t updated to include Obama’s very reasonable explanation, which means that a lot of people still believe it’s true he won’t salute the flag; after all, the Snopes site currently says the report is "true," even though it also has a shot of him saluting the flag).

But the smear merchants who use e-mail forwards don’t have to be accountable to anyone since they are, ultimately, quite anonymous. They can spread just about any lie they like as long as they can make it seem plausible enough. And once it starts spreading, it just takes on a life of its own.

Christopher Hayes at The Nation explored the phenomenon of the e-mail forward a couple of months ago. It was an important piece, really, because it shed fresh light on one of the more unremarked, and yet more effective, components of the right-wing propaganda machine:

Such is the power of the right-wing smear forward, a vehicle for the dissemination of character assassination that has escaped the scrutiny directed at the Limbaughs and Coulters and O’Reillys but one that is as potent as it is invisible. In 2004 putative firsthand accounts of Kerry’s performance in Vietnam traveled through e-mail in right-wing circles, presaging the Swift Boat attacks. Last winter a forward began circulating accusing Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim schooled in a radical madrassa (about which more later). While the story was later fed through familiar right-wing megaphones, even making it onto Fox, it has continued to circulate via e-mail long after being definitively debunked by CNN. In other words, the few weeks the smear spent in the glare of the mainstream media was just a tiny portion of a long life cycle, most of which has been spent darting from inbox to inbox.

In that respect, the e-mail forward doesn’t fit into our existing model of the right-wing noise machine’s structure (hierarchical) or its approach (broadcast). It is, instead, organic and peer-to-peer. If the manufactured outrage over Kerry’s botched joke about George Bush’s study habits was the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the Gold Star Mother smear was like one of those goofy viral videos of a dog on a skateboard on YouTube. Of course, some of those videos end up with 25 million page views. And now that large media companies understand their potential, they’ve begun trying to create their own. Which prompts the obvious question: if a handful of millionaires and disgruntled Swift Boat Veterans were able to sabotage Kerry’s campaign in 2004, what kind of havoc could be wreaked in 2008 by a few political operatives armed with little more than Outlook and a talent for gossip?

The smear forward has its roots in two distinct forms of Internet-age communication. First, there’s the electronically disseminated urban legend ("Help find this missing child!"; "Bill Gates is going to pay people for every e-mail they send!"), which has been a staple of the Internet since the mid- ’90s. Then there’s the surreal genre of right-wing e-mail forwards. These range from creepy rage-filled quasi-fascist invocations ("The next time you see an adult talking…during the playing of the National Anthem–kick their ass") to treacly aphorisms of patriotic/religious uplift ("remember only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you, Jesus Christ…and the American Soldier").

Obama, as the piece explains in considerable detail, has been a special victim of the e-mail smear campaign, particularly in seeing the spread of the story that he attended a madrassa. Hayes explores the origins of that smear in some enlightening detail, and then observes:

Despite the fact that CNN and others have thoroughly debunked the smear, the original false accusation has clearly sunk into people’s consciousness. One Obama organizer told me recently that every day, while calling prospective voters, he gets at least one or two people who tell him they won’t be voting for Obama because he’s a Muslim. According to Google, "Barack Obama Muslim" is the third most-searched term for the Illinois senator. And an August CBS poll found that when voters were asked to give Obama’s religion, as many said Muslim as correctly answered Protestant.

Oh yeah. And the e-mail continues to circulate.

What’s even more remarkable, in my mind, is how the mainstream media have responded to this phenomenon. Rather than inquiring into how and why these false rumors continue to spread and to be believed, it appears that editors and reporters both are content to merely report on their continuing existence as though it were a fact of political life.

Certainly, that was the case when the Washington Post took up the subject, instead giving its readers just another round of rumor-mongering. Heaven forfend a reporter display any curiosity about why these rumors might be persisting. The fallout, of course, just led to another round of ass-covering, mostly by blaming bloggers for noticing their malfeasance.

There’s a reason to ask these questions, of course: These smears have real-life consequences. The flow of disinformation is inimical to a functioning democracy, which depends on a well-informed citizenry. Any reporter looking into why these rumors persist will encounter the world of the e-mail forward — a phenomenon that is long overdue for a proper media spotlight, especially in helping the reading public understand that these e-mails are almost always unadulterated horseshit.

And then there are the ramifications for Americans on the personal level. One of the truly evil aspects of the genius of the e-mail forward is its uniquely polarizing effect. Not only does the spread of false information create arguments and animosities over our holiday breakfasts, but in many of our other relationships, especially the many people — old friends and colleagues, relatives and acquaintances — with whom we share our e-mail addresses.

Because we all have received these e-mails. I know how I first responded to this crap: Not nicely. And I’m not apologizing for that, though I’ve learned since then that sometimes (especially with those close to us) it’s important to talk about it in a way that persuades rather than berates, though I’m probably justified using the latter.

But wherever these e-mails land, inevitably they create ill will and ruptured friendships. People get polarized and stop talking.

And I suspect that’s exactly what their authors intend, even more than just the spread of lies.