Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Rumor Bomb Shelter, Election '08: Congratulation, Survivors

As in the last American presidential election's Swiftboating and name-calling "French!", rumoresque communication was a staple of election 2008. The most widespread of these rumors claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim, an Arab, and a terrorist (by association), though another extreme form appeared the last week of October when a woman told police she was attacked by a black man for being a McCain supporter. This species of political rumor deserves its own name, which I call the Rumor Bomb. The pervasiveness of rumor bombs demonstrates a new kind of disorientation and volatility in American political media, even if political rumors themselves are timeless.

What exactly is a rumor bomb? A rumor bomb (RB) is a public statement whose truth is in question (classic definition of rumor). Did John Kerry lie about his military record? Did George W. Bush lie about his National Guard service? Does Obama have ties to terrorists? Did Saddam Hussein have WMD's and/or ties to Al Qaeda? A public issue is made of the claim's uncertain truth status. And in many cases the status is deliberately ambiguous for innuendo's sake, which leads to its transformation from claim to question.

Second, a RB is a rumor dropped in a context of public anxiety or uncertainty about a political group, figure, or cause, which the rumor bomb overcomes or transfers onto an opponent. The U.S. is in the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s, is fighting two wars that have been marketed as a war on "terror" or terrorism, and its president hasn't had a plus 50% approval rating in years. That's public uncertainty and anxiety about a country's leadership and its future. Enter rumor the tri-partite rumor. Similar to John Kerry is "French" in the context of freedom fries and images of supposedly mass protests against French "treason" by Americans pouring out their $14 bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Third, a RB has a clearly partisan even if an anonymous source (eg. "an unnamed advisor to the president"), which seeks to profit politically from the rumor bomb's diffusion. Witness Jerome R. Corsi, the man who in 2004 joined forces with The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by publishing the best-selling rumor bomb "Unfit for Command," which of course attacked John Kerry's war decorations, courage, and leadership. In August he publishedObama Nation. It entered the NY Times bestseller list at #1 and has been widely quoted in the rumors' multi-media tours. Or the Clinton campaign volunteer who happily circulated the viral e-rumor. Also like the "unnamed White House official" who during the 2003 declarations of Democratic presidential candidacy told the New York Times John Kerry was "French-looking."

Lastly, RB's appear and circulate in a culture of rapid electronic diffusion. The rapid diffusion is partly technologically motivated: the inter-media influences of the internet, TV, cable, radio, print, cell phones and digital cameras/video. It's partly business motivated: dwindling resources for journalistic fact-checking, incentives to accept PR press releases, in an information culture that supposedly demands constant updates and entertaining stories. It's also partly due to the professionalization of politics, where communications experts study what the news wants in business terms and tries to control it with staged events and highly scripted addresses and interviews. All of these characteristics together form the contemporary uniqueness of RB's, making it different than political rumors of the past. And there are signs that we will only see more of them.

The latest RB was dropped October 26 in Pittsburgh by 20-year-old college student and McCain campaign volunteer Ashley Todd, who faked an assault and robbery report to Pittsburgh police in hopes to benefit some anti-Obama media publicity. In her report to police, she claimed it was a politically motivated attack by a black man who, after seeing she had a McCain sticker, pinned her to the ground and scratched a "B" for "Barack Obama" into her face. It took only one day between the report and the debunking. However, the influential Drudge Report quickly announced it as news, and other media outlets followed suit. Something quite similar happened in France in July 2004, which led then-President Jacques Chirac to address the nation over racial tolerance, after which the hoax was revealed. The ability of both amateur and professional political communicators to set mainstream news agendas speaks volumes to the disorientation, danger, and paradoxical democratic nature of their production.

A testament to the acknowledged seriousness of this form of political speech lay in the reaction of the Obama team, which chose to fight back with more than interviews with journalists. If the Internet was full of dangerous potentially persuasive rumor bombs dropped on vulnerable undecideds, his campaign would update the WWII version of the anti-propaganda “rumor clinic." Instead of relying on factcheck.org, snopes.com, etc. the Obama campaign started their own: Fightthesmears.com

If there have always been unverified claims printed in "professionalized" journalism (before that turn, of course, rumor was a news staple), the degree to which they are sliding in and also swirling about both new and old media forms we consume suggests we are in a very new kind of convergence culture, even if the damage their users' inflict can not guarantee an election triumph. In fact, when they're discredited too quickly they may backfire on the political brand they hoped to benefit. Political Communication has never been so volatile.

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