Almost four years ago I started a scholarly research project I call The Rumor Bomb. I was struck by what seemed the increasingly large number of unverifiable claims that were being circulated during the Bush first term, some of which turned out to be false, or deliberately misleading (WMD's, Iraq-Al Qaeda links)
Last Saturday a high-level Bush administration official was quoted as saying the American military had an important new weapon technology. The context was a story in the French daily Liberation, which was discussing the issue of Pakistan's sovereignty faced with recent illegal American military raids inside its borders, and also discussing the number of civilians killed as the result of these raids. The war technology claim came as a kind of threat rumor, a kind of time honored war rumor which occassionally turns out to be true. It is very old rumor strategy indeed, for Genghis Khan is said to have made more willing victims of his enemies by sending PR agents ahead of his armies, spinning tales of their ferocity (sometimes true, sometimes invented). With the U.S. government and its military, of course one never knows whether it's true or not; whether it's the next atomic bomb or not. It's not as if they don't have a budget to produce such new technologies--which is precisely the power of rumor in that case.
The rumor bombs have been dropping sans cesse. One of the most damaging at the moment for Obama is the RB that he is a muslim. Is is the case with any rumor bomb, it was launched by a political opponent (read here). This is a strategy similar to those used in the last election to discredit John Kerry. He was accused by the Swift Boaters to have been illegitimately decorated for war heroism. But the RB that most resembles the RB Obama is a Muslim is the RB that John Kerry was French. In both cases, it is not clear exactly what the statement is claiming. That is the power of the RB. Kerry grew up spending summers in Bretagne. He has a cousin there today. He speaks fluent French. Do these characteristics make him French? What does it mean to be French? A French citizen? Someone with stereotypically French cultural traits? The sign "French" was often associated with Kerry's alleged "haughtiness," cowardice, and perhaps worse, "socialistic" policy ambitions. But it would not have had any power had it not been for the context in which it was dropped. That context was the media frenzy over France's opposition to the American invasion of Iraq, which was met with wild images of Americans pouring bottles of fine French wine into sewers, slogans of "freedom fries," and calls by Bill O'Reilly et al. for an American boycott of French products until French president Chirac apologized for his "betrayal."
Similarly, the Obama rumor is based on little more than the fact that Obama's father grew up in a family of muslim faith, even though by college he was an avowed atheist (see here). Obama is a muslim? Like John Kerry is French (which continues even today in the self-described conservative chambers of discourse)
The exploding viral pieces of these bombs are difficult to contain. Giving them any attention assists in their viral expansion. On the one hand, they are often absurd claims that one is disgusted to give any response. And yet, they travel and address audiences, claim believers. As cognitive psychologists have argued, people's perceptions are framed by prior references. If one has heard a host of negative stereotypes (stereotypes can occasionally be beneficial to their referent, no?) about the French prior to the statement that frames John Kerry is French, and probably coming from the media blitz about the French opposition to the U.S. invading Iraq, it is not hard to understand one accepts the claim when it comes from one's trusted news source. And so it is with Obama. Never a practicing muslim, Obama is rumor-bombed as having been (or even secretly still being) such. Illogical associations, such as having attended a public school in Jakarta (where Islam is quite widespread in daily life) with no religious affiliation whatsoever are circulated near and far, as CNN tried to debunk last January.
Does it matter? Well, consider some of these soundbites major news organizations have circulated. Before Obama's May trip to Florida, the NY Times interviewed several Jews there."
Mr. Obama is Arab, Jack Stern’s friends told him in Aventura. (He’s not.)
He is a part of Chicago’s large Palestinian community, suspects Mindy Chotiner of Delray. (Wrong again.)
Mr. Wright is the godfather of Mr. Obama’s children, asserted Violet Darling in Boca Raton. (No, he’s not.)
Al Qaeda is backing him, said Helena Lefkowicz of Fort Lauderdale (Incorrect.)
Michelle Obama has proven so hostile and argumentative that the campaign is keeping her silent, said Joyce Rozen of Pompano Beach. (Mrs. Obama campaigns frequently, drawing crowds in her own right.)Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler. (Extremely unlikely, given his denunciation of Mr. Farrakhan.)"
These rumor bombs may not be enough to sink Obama, but they sure do make for an even more unpredictably dangerous journey.