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An Attack That Came Out of the Ether

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The Post's Matt Mosk speaks with Dr. Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Studies about her research into e-mails that spread rumors that Barack Obama is a radical Muslim.Audio by Matt Mosk/The Washington Post, Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

PRINCETON, N.J.

The e-mail landed in Danielle Allen's queue one winter morning as she was studying in her office at the Institute for Advanced Study, the renowned haven for some of the nation's most brilliant minds. The missive began: "THIS DEFINITELY WARRANTS LOOKING INTO."

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Laid out before Allen, a razor-sharp, 36-year-old political theorist, was what purported to be a biographical sketch of Barack Obama that has become one of the most effective -- and baseless -- Internet attacks of the 2008 presidential season. The anonymous chain e-mail makes the false claim that Obama is concealing a radical Islamic background. By the time it reached Allen on Jan. 11, 2008, it had spread with viral efficiency for more than a year.

During that time, polls show the number of voters who mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim rose -- from 8 percent to 13 percent between November 2007 and March 2008. And some cited this religious mis-affiliation when explaining their primary votes against him.

As the general-election campaign against Sen. John McCain has gotten underway, Obama's aides have made the smears a top target. They recently launched FightTheSmears.com to "aggressively push back with the truth," said Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor, and go viral with it. The Web site urges supporters to upload their address books and send e-mails to all of their friends. "

But long before this, Allen had been obsessing about the origins of her e-mail at the institute, which is most famous for having been the research home of Albert Einstein. Allen studies the way voters in a democracy gather their information and act on what they learn. She was familiar, of course, with the false rumors of a secret love child that helped sink McCain's White House bid in 2000, and the Swift boat attacks that did the same to Democrat John Kerry in 2004. But the Obama e-mail was on another plane: The use of the Internet made it possible to launch anonymous attacks that could reach millions of voters in weeks or even days.

As an Obama supporter -- she had met the senator while she worked as a dean at the University of Chicago -- it made her angry. And curious.

"I started thinking, 'How does one stop it?' "

Allen set her sights on dissecting the modern version of a whisper campaign, even though experts told her it would be impossible to trace the chain e-mail to its origin. Along the way, even as her hunt grew cold, she gained valuable insight into the way political information circulates, mutates and sometimes devastates in the digital age.

How Rumors Are Born

Allen was ideally suited to embark on such a difficult hunt. She boasts two doctorates, one in classics from Cambridge University and the other in government from Harvard University, and won a $500,000 MacArthur "genius" award at the age of 29. Last year she joined the faculty of the institute, the only African American and one of a handful of women at the elite research center, where she works alongside groundbreaking physicists, mathematicians and social scientists. They don't have to teach, and they face no quotas on what they publish. Their only mandate is to work in the tradition of Einstein, wrestling with the most vexing problems in the universe.

While Allen was already an expert on the mechanics of politics, she fast began to learn the mechanics of the Internet. She discovered, for instance, that the recipe for launching a chain e-mail attack is not as simple as typing it up and hitting the send button to a long list of recipients. It takes effort to seed a chain mail that spreads as widely as the Obama missive, explained Jeff Bedser, president of the Internet Crimes Group, a company that helps corporations battle such broadsides. "Lighting that fire, getting something to have momentum, takes work," he said.

For this kind of chain-mail message to gain traction, it must be plausible, and it has to resonate, said Eric Dezenhall, a public relations specialist who once worked in the Reagan White House. Obama was vulnerable, Dezenhall said, because of his unusual name, his childhood in Indonesia, a foreign-born father, and his sudden arrival on the national stage without a fully fleshed-out biography. "All of these things gave it merchandising legs," Dezenhall said.


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