Rumors increase during last days of presidential campaigns
Barack Obama is not a member of a socialist party. John McCain is not a foreigner. Sarah Palin is not Trig's grandmother. And Joe Biden is not dropping out of the race.
Oh, and they're not all having sordid affairs.
But it's rumor season again in this country, and with just days to go before the election, both campaigns are knocking down these rumors -- often spreading virally on the Internet -- along with a steady stream of other allegations that range from the questionable to the outrageous.
One thing you can believe: It'll only get worse between now and Election Day.
"With just days left to go in the campaign, it's use it or lose it time. If you're a candidate, now's the time to get it out, to sear it in voters minds just before they go to the voting booth," said UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Anthony Pratkanis, who researches propaganda and social influence.
The trouble with rumors, as representatives at both campaigns said, is that even refuting them means they are repeated. Nonetheless, they said sometimes you have just to talk about it, explain why it's false and move on.
"It's obviously an unfortunate development that we've seen in this election season, more than in elections past, but ultimately we trust the voters and their good sense," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
Obama's spokesman Tommy Vietor said their strategy has been to "confront these rumors head-on" with a designated website -- stopthesmears.com -- and to make sure precinct captains are given factual information to counter the "ridiculous false rumors that have swirled in this campaign."
"Our experience is that voters are smart, voters are resourceful," Vietor said.
Recent rumors, mostly floated online and on conservative talk shows, have intensified about Obama and usually come in the form of questions.
"Who wrote Obama's autobiography, 'Dreams From My Father?'" asked conservative website and talk show hosts last week, hinting that the writing was so sophisticated and used similar styles, including "water metaphors," that radical William Ayers must have been the true author. He wasn't. Obama was. "Utter hogwash," said Obama organizers debunking the claim.
Although this year's level of rumors has been ferocious and bizarre, the phenomenon of whisper campaigns, misinformation, and smears is as much a part of our nation's roots as elections themselves. Thomas Jefferson was accused of being anti-Christian; his opponents warned that he would destroy the religious fabric and values of the country and promote an orgy of rape, incest and adultery. John Adams, opponents said, was pro-monarchy and was planning on marrying his son to the daughter of King George III.
"These smears are a great American tradition, going back to our earliest contested elections," Pratkanis said.
Eight years ago, McCain lost a strong lead in the South Carolina GOP primary, and possibly even the presidency, after what a campaign aide later described as "a textbook example of a smear." Using e-mails and push polls, Republican opponents spread the false rumor that his adopted Bangladeshi-born daughter was actually his biological and illegitimate black child. That lie was enough, observers said, to lose South Carolina.
For the past two years, Obama faced the vast majority of false rumors in this long election season. But when Alaska's Gov. Sarah Palin was tapped to be McCain's running mate, a deluge of rumors began about this little-known Republican from a remote state.
Three days after her selection, reporters from a dozen national media organizations including the AP lined up at a Palmer, Alaska, courthouse counter and, one after another, paged through a divorce settlement of a friend of Palin's to see if she was named as the cause of their strife. She was not. But they've sought her baby's birth records, combed through her meeting minutes, and someone even hacked her private e-mail. Still the rumors haven't stopped.
"Terrible and false rumors have dogged Senator Obama for the past two years, no doubt, but the Republican ticket has quickly caught up. At one point there were 93 separate rumors about Palin," said Nick DiFonzo, a psychologist and rumor expert at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. "I think everyone's a loser in this situation."
Rumors are most effectively floated either when a candidate is first introduced, so that voters see everything that follows through the screen of those initial rumors. Or they're floated just before the election, so the smears are fresh in voters' minds when they go to the polls.
Andy Martin, a self-described "anti-Obama nemesis," is the source of some of the most vicious rumors about Obama including current claims that the candidate lied about who is real father is.
"Look, the way I see it, one person's rumor is another person's fact," said Martin. He said spreading rumors is "disgusting and I never do it" but conceded that his own earlier claim that the candidate was a secret Muslim, something he repeated on nationally broadcast television and radio talk shows, "is diluted now." Obama is Christian.
UC Santa Cruz literature professor Mary Kay Gamel had a profound, personal lesson about political rumors last month after forwarding an e-mail she had received titled "My Vacation With John McCain" to three friends asking what they thought of it.
The e-mail, which was not written by Gamel and which McCain's campaign said is "100 percent false," described a boorish and crass McCain on a vacation in Fiji in 2000. The e-mail was forwarded to thousands of people, and along the way the author's name was deleted and the Gamel's name was added as the author of it.
"Then things really went wild," said Gamel, who is on sabbatical this year. Her phone rang nonstop and thousands of e-mails poured in for which she set up an automatic response explaining that she was not the author of the letter and did not know if it was true. She said she tried, herself, to track the source of the rumor hoped someone would research it to find out whether it was true.
More broadly, however, Gamel said she's much more careful about forwarding e-mails and reading rumors.
"I certainly look at them more carefully," she said.