Friday, October 26, 2007

The Internet as a Petri Dish for Innuendo and Lies

What do you get when you combine an urban legend with an e-mail Forward button? "The New Right-Wing Smear Machine":

On February 27, 2001, two members of the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of women who've lost sons or daughters in combat, dropped by the temporary basement offices of the new junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. They didn't have an appointment, and the office, which had been up and running for barely a month, was a bit discombobulated. The two women wanted to talk to the senator about a bill pending in the Senate that would provide annuities for the parents of those killed, but they were told that Clinton wasn't in the office and that the relevant staff members were otherwise engaged. The organization later submitted a formal request in writing for a meeting, which Clinton granted, meeting and posing for pictures with four members of the group.

But the story doesn't end there. In May of that year, the right-wing website NewsMax, a clearinghouse for innuendo and rumor, ran a short item with the headline "Hillary Snubs Gold Star Mothers." Reporting via hearsay--a comment relayed to someone who then recounted it to the column's author--the article claimed that Clinton and her staff "simply refused" to meet with the Gold Star Mothers, making hers the "only office" in the Senate that snubbed the group.

At first the item didn't attract much attention, but it quickly morphed into an e-mail that started ricocheting across the Internet. "Bet this never hits the TV news!" began one version. "According to NewsMax.com there was only one politician in DC who refused to meet with these ladies. Can you guess which politician that might be?... None other than the Queen herself--the Hildebeast, Hillary Clinton."

Before long, the Gold Star Mothers and the Clinton office found themselves inundated by inquiries about the "snub," prompting the Gold Star Mothers to post a small item debunking the claim on their website. When that didn't stem the tide, they posted a lengthier notice. "These allegations were not initiated by the Gold Star Mothers.... This is a fabricated report picked up by an individual using the Gold Star Mothers as an instrument to discredit Senator Clinton.... We do not need mischeivous gossip and unfounded lies to promote our organization. Please help stop it now."

That plea notwithstanding, the e-mail continues to circulate to this day. ...

No fair! cries Chuck Adkins.
First off, this article isn’t fair at all.They act as if the Liberals have never smeared a Right Winger before. Which I happen to know is a crock of bull.

Second of all, This article isn’t new:
posted October 25, 2007 (November 12, 2007 issue)

Sorry, Chuck, but The Nation article is specifically about rumors, lies, and misinformation spread via chain e-mails -- and according to Hayes they are almost all disseminated by right-wingers against liberals:
From the beginning, the vast majority of these Internet-disseminated rumors have come from the right. (Snopes lists about fifty e-mails about George W. Bush, split evenly between adulatory accounts of him saluting wounded soldiers or witnessing to a wayward teenager, and accounts of real and invented malapropisms. In contrast, every single one of the twenty-two e-mails about John Kerry is negative.) For conservatives, these e-mails neatly reinforce preconceptions, bending the facts of the world in line with their ideological framework: liberals, immigrants, hippies and celebrities are always the enemy; soldiers and conservatives, the besieged heroes. The stories of the former's perfidy and the latter's heroism are, of course, never told by the liberal media. So it's left to the conservative underground to get the truth out. And since the general story and the roles stay the same, often the actual characters are interchangeable.

"A lot of the chain letters that were accusing Al Gore of things in 2000 were recycled in 2004 and changed to Kerry," says John Ratliff, who runs a site called BreakTheChain.org, which, like Snopes, devotes itself to debunking chain e-mails. One e-mail falsely described a Senate committee hearing in the 1980s where Oliver North offered an impassioned Cassandra-like warning about the threat of Osama bin Laden, only to be dismissed by a condescending Democratic senator. Originally it was Al Gore who played the role of the senator, but by 2004 it had changed to John Kerry. "You just plug in your political front-runner du jour," Ratliff says.

Even if many of the tropes were consistent, the tenor of the e-mails grew more aggressive between 2000 and 2004. "It got really nasty," says Ratliff. "You started seeing things reported as real news that, if you looked into it, you realized was opinion or supposition or someone trying to discredit another candidate through character assassination. You saw a lot of chain letters that purported to be from members of the Swift Boat group or firsthand accounts of people who supposedly had experience with Kerry in Vietnam. A lot of them didn't check out."

And to Chuck's second objection: HUH? Chuck, I have some extra calendars; I'll be glad to send you one so you can keep track of what day it is.

Another rightie blames it on tin foil:
I wasn’t aware that all the internet rumors that flow through the e-mail boxes are actually a carefully crafted plan by the Republicans and Rush and Fox News…See, they get all of us to keep sending them around and that’s why the Democrats message doesn’t get out! It’s just a big fat right wing conspiracy. There are absolutely no emails circulating that put Republicans in the same light!

Pam, you could have a point there. Conspiracies and carefully crafted plans could very well have nothing whatsoever to do with the baseless, manufactured smears about Democrats and liberals that have been caroming around the Internet. It doesn't necessarily have to be about a deliberate, intentional smear campaign on the right's part, at all. It could simply be that right-wingers tend by nature to be unprincipled, intellectually dishonest, too lazy to fact-check, and in general lacking in integrity. Indeed, Chris Hayes says as much [emphasis mine]:
... Anyone who's been following politics for the past fifteen years won't be surprised to find Hillary Clinton the subject of a false and damning right-wing smear. We've all become familiar with the ways the Republican noise machine transmits lurid bits of misinformation and tendentious attacks from the conservative fringe into the heart of American political discourse, the process by which a slightly misdelivered joke by John Kerry attracts the ire of Rush Limbaugh and ends up on the front page of the New York Times.

But in some senses, the kind of under-the-radar attack embodied in the Gold Star e-mail--which never made the jump to Fox or Drudge--is even harder to deal with. "It's a Pandora's box," says Jim Kennedy, who served as Clinton's communications director during her first Senate term. "Once [the charges] are out in the ether, they are very hard to combat. It's very unlike a traditional media, newspaper or TV show, or even a blog, which at least has a fixed point of reference. You know they're traveling far and wide, but there's no way to rebut them with all the people that have seen them."

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?

1 comment:

Editor in Chief said...

Hi there,

Thanks for linking, once you mentioned it and I thought about it. I realized you were right.

I did update the post.

-Chuck

P.S. ain't the first time I've been wrong, and won't be my last. :)