We the Media, How Have We Failed: “Re: Fwd: Who is Barack Obama?”

    by Benjamin Melançon
    February 6, 2008

    This is old news, I know. Various political forums mentioned the “Obama is a MUSLIM” e-mail smear campaign more than a month ago. But when I read about it, my understanding was this hatemongering and lying – or at least the lying – had been laid to rest.

    But then the e-mail was forwarded to me. Thoughtfully. As in, “you should know this.”

    I trust this friend. This friend is a good person. This friend has a college degree and has read more books than most of our presidential candidates, probably.


    And this friend forwarded me a whole troop of malicious lies after truth has already had a very long day and has gotten undressed for bed.

    Coming in a month late in the chain, I responded to the forty or so names the person who forwarded the e-mail to my friend had left exposed. That brief response and the e-mail itself are posted at RootTruth.org so as not to clutter the Idea Lab blog.

    How can the media be so untrusted that well-meaning people choose to believe blatantly unsourced lies in an anonymous e-mail forward?


    Now, I have to be clear. I don’t trust the establishment media to give me anything close to an accurate picture of the world or, indeed, of the below-mean-income majority in the United States. I know the major media corporations will not refrain from removing almost all my choices by the time I can vote in a primary.

    To take an example from the Republican side, if media from NPR to NBC hadn’t treated Mitt Romney as a frontrunner (on account of his money) from back when he polled in the single digits, he would have been a third-tier candidate (despite his money) before now. (I certainly would never expect coverage to be about anything but polls and strategy.)

    Has anyone calculated Mike Huckabee’s votes-per-dollar? And then gone the extra step and put a price on the free media time the candidates have received, and factored that in? The dollar-for-dollar difference between Huckabee and other candidates must be astounding, perhaps unprecedented.

    This must be in part due to people, a significant number of whom vote in Republican primaries, who really do not trust the media. In this context, and many others, I would argue that not trusting the media is a good thing: the healthy first step of admitting we have a problem.

    But even I would be skeptical of claims of religious extremism of a candidate (well, let’s not go into some of the candidates’ interpretations of Christianity) in a race where religion has again featured prominently in the coverage. I would not automatically assume the media is hiding claims patriotically revealed in an anonymous, unsourced e-mail. I would at least check the e-mail’s one reference, to Snopes.com, where it is specifically debunked, before forwarding it to anyone.

    Yet thinking people do hold and endorse patently false beliefs. Bad media hasn’t prompted people to develop their built-in detector of lies and spin; instead it seems they’ve tuned out a lot of media and turned the “where’s this coming from?” filter off. The issue is a lot bigger than political hit jobs in e-mail forwards.

    I’m sorry if I sound alarmist. It’s been my impression that the proportion of Internet users who receive and read, let alone forward, inane e-mails has been dropping. I have no idea what the relative reach of this forwarded e-mail is, just this one anecdote.

    But it hit home.

    The experience helps me understand why, reading and agreeing with G. Patton Hughes’ excellent celebration of forums over blogs, I still felt that online bulletin boards, conversational forums are not nearly enough.

    To reach enough people our conversation must also use push technologies like e-mail (television and radio are another type of push technology).

    To include a lot of people in the conversation it must be filtered or moderated in some way. There are some tried and true and some innovative ways to keep online conversations at a human scale (tip to someone with a nimbler brain: that link is worth an Idealab post in itself).

    The best solution (that is to say, humbly, my proposed solution) is self-moderation by people in a network – including a massive network of potentially everyone. Filtering would be done by random people drawn from the network, and among many other potential approaches it would be integrated with a system that prevents duplicate messages (that latter feature alone might help bring in heavy e-mail forwarders) and promotes easy sharing within more intimate groups of contacts.

    I don’t know if my friend would use such a system. I don’t know how much a network like this would help the truth will out.

    But I’m a little bit desperate because we need a new media system that changes our interactions with it and with each other. Desperately.

    Because the most disturbing thing about that e-mail wasn’t the false claim that Barack Obama is Muslim. The most disturbing thing is the success assertion that it would matter. Quite apart from the fate of one of the establishment-acceptable politicians running for president (none of which offer true hope for change from the policies that have brought us here without a great deal more pressure from below), we as a nation cannot afford to buy into hate, religious or otherwise, with our global problems of poverty, environmental destruction, and war coming due.

    Tagged: Barack Hussein Obama lies politics propaganda

    10 responses to “We the Media, How Have We Failed: “Re: Fwd: Who is Barack Obama?””

    1. A note on the title: I use “We the media” to include all media, not just big media. And in the “be the media” tradition of Indymedia and many others, this means all of us.

    2. Benjamin:

      Perfection eludes us all and that includes the media. There is no such thing as perfect; only better and worse.

      The worse is the strategic use of push-media such as direct mail and email. In a campaign four years ago, one candidate smeared another with a ridiculous direct mail piece that hit households after the last weekly newspaper ran saying electing a particular candidate would result in “Sex Shops in Dallas.” The sponsoring candidates’ mark was small and difficult to find on the flamboyant flame. Paulding.com, in its infancy was not up to the job of refuting the claim. The race, a state senate contest, was not interested as other issues and races predominated.

      While not ‘enough’ – the race covered three more rural counties – it was news on in the hyperlocal arena and it did give the targeted candidate at least some recourse. Still that is better.

      Your link above made the observation that “When social communities grow past a certain point (Dunbar’s Number?), they start to suck.” (XKCD)

      To paraphrase another former Arkansan, I do feel their pain. I do recognize that as a challenge that is demonstrably not nearly as fixed a barrier as the speed of light.

      However, their solution that everything has to be new and unique to be valuable was pretty much dashed as a concept a few thousand years ago by Solomon as nothing more than vanity.

      Certainly the lies about Obama have been posted on Paulding.com … several times … and refuted several times by all to see. We continue to get variations, including comments that the Church of Christ of which he is a member is racist. Those who do so are the same GOP partisans who initially repeated the Obama is Muslim line.

      The fact is that as long as speech is free, folks with an ax to grind will find a way to communicate their lies whether it be through push polls, leaflets, or mailed post cards proclaiming one candidate the champion of sex shops in Dallas.

      That they find their way into discussion boards is actually good in that at least they can be refuted and the purveyors challenged.

      What keeps all this from seeming redundant is the way most folks read Paulding.com, which is to view the ‘recent topics.’ Recent topics packages the activity on the site into two big categories … now and then. The now is, well now and is 10 pages of topics with responses over the past 24 hours. Hot news usually falls no further than the second page and as interest wanes, topics cycle into the then category and the underlying organization of the site’s 200+ forums.

      That’s how we do it and it is far from perfect but if Dunbar’s limit before self-destruction is 250 participating … we’ve burst that bubble with over 1300 folks posting 100 times or more and over 7200 posting altogether.

      GP Hughes

    3. Anna Haynes says:

      > “Bad media hasn’t prompted people to develop their built-in detector of lies and spin; instead it seems they’ve tuned out a lot of media and turned the “where’s this coming from?” filter off.”

      Part of the problem is that ‘good media’ still think that they’ve done enough (to inform their readers) by just refraining from publishing the false story themselves.

      But they haven’t.

      We’ve got exactly the same situation with global warming denialism. *Really* informing the readers would entail teaching some media literacy and critical thinking – “We didn’t print that story you heard, because it’s false, and here are the ‘red flag’ aspects that should alert you to think twice about swallowing it, and here’s who has been pushing it and why they aren’t credible sources.”

      ‘Taking the high road’ (by choosing to ignore a misimpression, instead of actively correcting it) doesn’t serve the readers.

      What I would *love* to see is a “Readers Circle General Olympics” competition between different organs of the press – each paper serves up a near-random group of its (willing) viewers/readers/listeners, and they’re all given the same quizzes on factual matters, and then the groups’ “grades” are posted along with whose group they were.

      (akin to what was done with Fox and Iraq WMD, but this would be something the press actively participated in…though cheerleaders and MCs would be optional)

      If you want to improve something, first you need to find a way to measure it. This would be a way.

    4. JD Lasica says:

      Ben, I wrote about the email smear job on my blog a month ago, after being forwarded the email by my sister, a smart woman who had concerns.

      It’s up to *all* of us to fact-check these email missives and determine whether they have any validity or not.

      Simply passing them along — oh, well, there might be a grain of truth in here somewhere — is the height of intellectual laziness when a 5-second trip to Snopes.com will show this for the smear job that it is.

    5. Thanks GP, Anna, and JD, for your well-considered responses.

      JD, I agree it’s all of our responsibilities, and I like your write-up.

      Anna, I like that suggestion a lot. You’re absolutely right. If journalism’s objective is to inform the public, we must teach media literacy and we must address falsehoods whether we spread them or not.

      GP, I agree that Dunbar’s number can and must be broken. And Paulding.com may even have a big enough impact on its readers and participants that they will check there before forwarding a smear campaign.

      The big problem that I tried to raise, the one that shook me, that makes me surer than ever we need a new solution, is what intelligent people’s credulity toward anonymous e-mail attacks indicates about the standing of the media. I mean, I can’t stand to listen to reporting that takes the state of the world as given, that reflexively belittles any challenge to the status quo, which is what my ears hear on everything from NPR to rightwing hate radio.

      But I know I’m not normal. And I’m committed to helping build a system I think can be trusted. But when regular people have no faith in existing media institutions to tell them the truth, to the extent that they casually forward anything that triggers a fear or a prejudice, that scares me.

      I always take the long view of history and would cite our relative lack of progress in ordering our social affairs since Solomon’s time (while technology and knowledge have increased exponentially) as evidence that we still need something new. ;-)

    6. One other point I tried to raise is that the lies aren’t the only disturbing thing.

      As long as printing “MUSLIM” and “ATHEIST” in capital letters is enough to make both bad and scary, we’ve got bigger problems than inaccuracies.

      And I have no idea to deal with that. Except, again, to have a media system that provides an accurate view of the world.

    7. Anna Haynes says:

      > “As long as printing “MUSLIM” and “ATHEIST” in capital letters is enough to make both bad and scary, we’ve got bigger problems than inaccuracies.”

      Which, again, the press could be doing a lot more to combat – but isn’t, in part out of fear of offending & driving off those readers who hold such views.

      If people don’t learn good citizenship from their parents, they’re supposed to learn it in school. If it’s no longer taught in school, they’ll need to learn it from the press. If the press says “not my yob”, …

    8. On the establishment media doing quite the opposite of promoting peace and understanding, Joshua Micah Marshall attacks Tim Russert’s “Lowest Moment”:

      I would say it was borderline to bring up the issue of Farrakhan at all. But perhaps since it’s getting some media play you bring it up just for the record, for Obama to address.

      That’s not what Russert did. He launches into it, gets into a parsing issue over word choices, then tries to find reasons to read into the record some of Farrakhan’s vilest quotes after Obama has just said he denounces all of them. Then he launches into a bizarre series of logical fallacies that had Obama needing to assure Jews that he didn’t believe that Farrakhan “epitomizes greatness”.

      As a Jew and perhaps more importantly simply as a sentient being I found it disgusting. It was a nationwide, televised, MSM version of one of those noxious Obama smear emails.

    9. Naomi Klein argues that, for the sake of Muslims everywhere and U.S. government relations with Muslims, Obama must turn the tables on the hatemongers. He should go beyond affirming that he is not a Muslim. He needs to call out the insinuation that there’s a problem with that for the racist propaganda that it is. Klein says it a lot better.

      I agree that a strong statement from all candidates should be made. As mentioned in the comments, this isn’t an issue leaders or truthtellers can ignore. At the very least Obama can go as far as Jerry Seinfeld, disclaiming homosexuality in a 1993 episode: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

    10. A commenter on Rural Votes’ The Field, plum, wrote tonight:

      I just saw that 60 Minutes clip, and something really jumped out at me. The Ohioan who had lost his job and whose wife had medical bills he didn’t know how to pay for said he was leaning toward Obama, but that he had questions about … the usual email smears. Steve Kroft corrected him, to his credit, but what made me do a double take was this: The guy seriously thought Obama was a Muslim who didn’t show respect for the national anthem, and he was still considering voting for him.

      Call me an incorrigible optimist, but I get a real kick out of that.

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