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An Attack That Came Out of the Ether

Audio
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

When asked about the Obama e-mail, she says evenly: "I've never seen the e-mail. I don't get any political e-mails. I have a good filter on that."

Old Tactic, New Twist

The idea of unsubstantiated charges whispered through gossip trails has been a tried-and-true political technique since well before Machiavelli's time, Allen said. Traditionally, the best approach to combating them has been to "flush the charges out into the open."

That was easier when the rumors flew off a printing press, or when they appeared -- as with Swift boat attacks against Kerry -- in television ads paid for by a well-funded group of partisans. The attacks on Obama are different, Allen says. The level of anonymity, the technical efficiency, and above all the electoral impact of Internet-based smears all represent a new challenge.

"What I've come to realize is, the labor of generating an e-mail smear is divided and distributed amongst parties whose identities are secret even to each other," she says. A first group of people published articles that created the basis for the attack. A second group recirculated the claims from those articles without ever having been asked to do so. "No one coordinates the roles," Allen said. Instead the participants swim toward their goal like a school of fish -- moving on their own, but also in unison.

Obama's campaign, for better or worse, is writing the manual on combating this new asymmetrical guerrilla warfare. Obama has not shied away from the rumors -- he mentions them frequently. "Before I begin," he told a pro-Israel group this month, "I want to say that I know some provocative e-mails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. . . . They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president. And all I want to say is -- let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening."

Allen says the casual pushback and aggressive response plan could provide the model politicians will follow in the future. But she remains uncertain it will work.

"Citizens and political scientists must face the fact that the Internet has enabled a new form of political organization that is just as influential on local and national elections as unions and political action committees," she says. "This kind of misinformation campaign short-circuits judgment. It also aggressively disregards the fundamental principle of free societies that one be able to debate one's accusers."

For proof of this, Allen says, she need look no further than her e-mail inbox. After months of research, a new chain-mail smear against Obama arrived with an innocuous subject line: "Food for thought."

Research editor Lucy Shackelford and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.


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