Like the Medicare story, these claims are demonstrably false, too. Nevertheless, they are popular on the thriving underground e-mail circuit, a carnival of nonsense whose star attractions have included the canard that Obama is a secret Muslim and variations on the “birther” claims about his origins.
Grass-roots whisper campaigns such as these predate the invention of the “send” button, of course. No one needed a Facebook page or an e-mail account to spread the word about Thomas Jefferson’s secret love child or Grover Cleveland’s out-of-wedlock offspring (both won elections despite the stories, which in Jefferson’s case were very likely true).
But it has become a truism that in their modern, Internet-driven form, these persistent narratives spread far faster and run deeper than ever. And they share an unexpected trait: Most of the time, Democrats (or liberals) are the ones under attack. Yes, George W. Bush had some whoppers told about him — such as his alleged scoffing that the French “don’t have a word for ‘entrepreneur’ ” — but when it comes to generating and sustaining specious and shocking stories, there’s no contest. The majority of the junk comes from the right, aimed at the left.
We’re not talking here about verifiably inaccurate statements from the mouths of politicians and party leaders. There’s plenty of that from all sides. And almost all of those statements are out in the open, where they get called out relatively quickly by the opposition or the mainstream media.
Instead, it’s the sub rosa campaigns of vilification, the can-you-believe-this beauts that land periodically in your inbox from a trusted friend or relative amid the noise of every political season.
This sort of buzz occurs out of earshot of the news media. It gains rapid and broad circulation by being passed from hand to hand, from friend to relative to co-worker. Its power and credibility come from its source. Aunt Sally isn’t just some reporter or anchor; she’s a dear family member. You know her. She wouldn’t lie to you, would she?
Viral e-mails didn’t really come into widespread use until early in the last decade, says David Emery, who tracks urban legends for About.com. The first big target was a Democrat: presidential candidate John Kerry, subjected to wild claims about his wealth, his service in Vietnam and the supposed radical connections of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.