Youngsters today might not realize this, but rumors and political insults on the Internet predate social media by a healthy margin. Viral garbage now replicates in the warm, moist hosts of Facebook and Twitter. In the First Clinton Era, they spread (as they still do now), over e-mail. Those emails would get FWD: FWD: FWD:'d over and over. And many grandparents probably received responses from their grandkids that consisted simply of a link to Snopes.com, which was to debunking rumors what Google is to searching the web.
The site didn't start out dealing with politics, co-founder David Mikkelson told me when we spoke by phone earlier this week while on vacation in Hawaii. "When we started the site [in 1995], it was just about urban legends, a very specific kind of folklore," he said. "Since I was on the web from the very beginning, it quickly became the place that everybody started sending things that they found questionable."
Everything was lumped together at first, but then, as iffy photos kept pouring in, the site added a separate section for photos. (Photoshop version 1 came out in 1990.) "It was several years before people started making use of the Internet to spread political screeds," Mikkelson said -- years that just happened to overlap with Bill Clinton's second term and the scandals that led to his impeachment.
If you go to the site's Clinton page -- which still exists as its own category, naturally -- you'll see that there actually isn't much there, particularly when compared to the page for President Obama. The Clintons have 29 rumors that are evaluated (not every rumor is incorrect, of course). Obama has 164.
Part of that is timing. "The 2000 election was when we saw [politics] emerge as a separate class of things," Mikkelson said. Al Gore was a frequent target of rumors and altered pictures. By 2004, Snopes "ramped up a bit," he said, what with the John Kerry-Swift Boat stuff, and so on. By 2008, it exploded -- but not because of Clinton's bid for the nomination.
Obama has been an unusually productive source of bizarre rumors. "Barack Obama was pretty new on the scene and brought a whole lot of issues of race and religion that Hillary didn't bring with her," Mikkelson said. What's more, by 2007 "most of the things that are going to be spread about [Clinton] have already been spread," he pointed out. "The first 'Barack Obama is a radical Muslim' piece was sent out in the very beginning of 2007, as soon as he got in the race."
Obama's time in office also overlapped with the emergence of social media, which is where most of the rumors Snopes considers originate these days. "A lot of it is distributed by memes, which people love on social media," he said. By memes, he means things like this:
Photo plus text plus distribution on Facebook or Twitter. And the old axiom about a lie going halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on undersells the state of things. Rumors blanket the world instantly, while nuanced rebuttals take more time and are harder to propagate. "The nature of Facebook comments tends to be, by necessity, short," Mikkelson pointed out. You can't post 600 words in response, and no one would read it anyway.
The Clinton rumors on Snopes also aren't what you might call the big-ticket rumors about the former first family. Since Snopes is reactive, not proactive, they've never needed to address something like Whitewater. "It's hard to encapsulate what Whitewater or Travelgate were in a way that is concise and stirs people up to outrage," Mikkelson said, explaining why those rumors don't get passed around as much. "'Some people in the travel office were fired!' OK? It doesn't compare to, 'She killed four people in Benghazi by ignoring their pleas for help.'"
As he did in 2007, Mikkelson has seen a recent uptick in interest in Clinton rumors. The popular one recently was that Clinton was fired from the Watergate investigation. "It's everything that people want to believe of her," Mikkelson said -- "she's a liar, she's corrupt, she's unethical -- all in one piece." It is also important to note: This rumor is false.
Snopes has been criticized for focusing on rumors about Democrats more than ones about Republicans. He argues that this is a function of the tendencies of the two partisan groups. "Generally, 90 to 95 percent of the political stuff we write about is anti-Democratic, anti-liberal," he said. Even during the Bush years (45 articles), there weren't any big rumors. Mikkelson summarizes: "You really have to hunt to find anti-conservative things to debunk."
At the end of our conversation, Mikkelson mentioned that he'd traveled to Africa a while ago, making a stop-over in Kenya. Given the vacation in Hawaii which I interrupted, he noted with glee that, "I have now been to both places that Barack Obama was born!"
Snopes, for what it's worth, rates that rumor as false.