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June 28, 2008

How The Internet Rumor That Claims Obama Is A Muslim Started

It is incredible that rumors that are complete fabrications and full of false information which can potentially ruin a person are read by some and then conveniently used as factual source material and is then republished without ANY research that substantiates that the  original information is true or correct therefore continuing and passing on the propaganda from person to person. Incredible.

The e-mail landed in Danielle Allen’s queue one winter morning as she was studying in her office at the Institute for Advanced Study, the renowned haven for some of the nation’s most brilliant minds. The missive began: “THIS DEFINITELY WARRANTS LOOKING INTO.”

Laid out before Allen, a razor-sharp, 36-year-old political theorist, was what purported to be a biographical sketch of Barack Obama that has become one of the most effective — and baseless — Internet attacks of the 2008 presidential season. The anonymous chain e-mail makes the false claim that Obama is concealing a radical Islamic background. By the time it reached Allen on Jan. 11, 2008, it had spread with viral efficiency for more than a year.

During that time, polls show the number of voters who mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim rose — from 8 percent to 13 percent between November 2007 and March 2008. And some cited this religious mis-affiliation when explaining their primary votes against him.

As the general-election campaign against Sen. John McCain has gotten underway, Obama’s aides have made the smears a top target. They recently launched FightTheSmears.com to “aggressively push back with the truth,” said Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor, and go viral with it. The Web site urges supporters to upload their address books and send e-mails to all of their friends. ”

But long before this, Allen had been obsessing about the origins of her e-mail at the institute, which is most famous for having been the research home of Albert Einstein. Allen studies the way voters in a democracy gather their information and act on what they learn. She was familiar, of course, with the false rumors of a secret love child that helped sink McCain’s White House bid in 2000, and the Swift boat attacks that did the same to Democrat John Kerry in 2004. But the Obama e-mail was on another plane: The use of the Internet made it possible to launch anonymous attacks that could reach millions of voters in weeks or even days.

As an Obama supporter — she had met the senator while she worked as a dean at the University of Chicago — it made her angry. And curious.

“I started thinking, ‘How does one stop it?’ ”

Allen set her sights on dissecting the modern version of a whisper campaign, even though experts told her it would be impossible to trace the chain e-mail to its origin. Along the way, even as her hunt grew cold, she gained valuable insight into the way political information circulates, mutates and sometimes devastates in the digital age.

While Allen was already an expert on the mechanics of politics, she fast began to learn the mechanics of the Internet. She discovered, for instance, that the recipe for launching a chain e-mail attack is not as simple as typing it up and hitting the send button to a long list of recipients. It takes effort to seed a chain mail that spreads as widely as the Obama missive.

For this kind of chain-mail message to gain traction, it must be plausible, and it has to resonate, said Eric Dezenhall, a public relations specialist who once worked in the Reagan White House. Obama was vulnerable, Dezenhall said, because of his unusual name, his childhood in Indonesia, a foreign-born father, and his sudden arrival on the national stage without a fully fleshed-out biography. “All of these things gave it merchandising legs,” Dezenhall said.

Allen’s eyes fell on this untrue sentence: “ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Kuran (Their equivalency to our Bible, but very different beliefs).”

The use of “their equivalency” and the spelling of “Kuran” instead of “Koran” made the sentence her point of departure.

That 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. In an Aug. 10, 2004, article, which he That was interesting to me because it was an angle that nobody had covered. We started looking. As a candidate you learn how to harness the Internet. posted on Web sites and e-mailed to bloggers, he said that Obama had concealed his Muslim heritage. “I feel sad having to expose Barack Obama,” Martin wrote in an accompanying press release, “but the man is a complete fraud. The truth is going to surprise, and disappoint, and outrage many people who were drawn to him. He has lied to the American people, and he has sought to misrepresent his own heritage.” Martin’s article did not suggest an association between Obama and radical Islam.

Martin was trying to launch a Senate bid against Obama when he says he first ran the Democrat’s name by a contact in London. “They said he must be a Muslim. You end up really learning how to work the street. I sort of picked this story up as a sideline.” Martin said the primary basis for his belief was simple — Obama’s father was a Muslim. In a defamation lawsuit he filed against the New York Times and others several months ago, Martin says that Obama “eventually became a Christian” but that “as a matter of Islamic law began life as a Muslim” due to his father’s religion.

 The New York Times’ paper’s public editor, or ombudsman — someone responsible for investigating and resolving complaints consumers or public against a company — later wrote that he had interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them disagreed with that interpretation of Islamic law.

Martin said he posted his 2004 article on Web sites, and distributed it by e-mail to authors of other popular blogs. But he said he had nothing to do with the chain e-mail that got Allen’s attention. “I’m not trying to smear anybody,” Martin said. “I just felt that was an underreported story.”

But Martin said he understands how his initial article has taken on a life of its own. “There’s nothing sinister here. I was thinking of running for Senate and was looking for a story to put some sizzle on the plate.”

Other articles followed Martin’s. Andrew Walden, the founder of an alternative Hawaiian newspaper with the motto “The untold story, the unspoken opinion, the other side,” published an article with many of the same false biographical details from the e-mail in the weeks before Obama announced for president — that he was “Raised in Muslim lands and educated in Muslim schools.” He said in an interview that Obama’s “alliance with Islam” was “all over the Internet,” a source he often considers more trustworthy than the mainstream media.

Around the same time Ted Sampley, a North Carolina man who runs his own Web site, published a similar piece. In an interview, he denied authorship of the e-mail, but said he did not doubt that his article had provided source material. “That’s the miracle of it,” Sampley said. “Once it takes off, and people start posting it on Web sites, you really have no idea how far it goes or who reads it. You get a ripple effect. It’s like a little pebble and then it gets bigger and bigger.”

Poring over these early articles on the topic, Allen noticed what she thought was an important pattern. In each instance, someone had posted the articles on the Free Republic Web site, prompting a discussion involving the same handful of people, with several expressing a desire to spread the word about Obama’s supposed faith.

 

Read this very interesting article in full at:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/27/AR2008062703781.html?hpid=topnews

 

Article Title: An Attack That Came Out of the Ether

Scholar Looks for First Link in E-Mail Chain About Obama

By Matthew Mosk/Washington Post Staff Writer/Saturday, June 28, 2008

Research editor Lucy Shackelford and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

 

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10 Comments »

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

    Comment by Jason Whitmen — June 28, 2008 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

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  4. Hi Jason — I’m glad you stopped by. I checked out your site as well. I found it very interesting. Maybe we’ll have reason to talk going forward.

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