The Things People Say
Rumors in an age of unreason.
Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker | November 2, 2009
This past June, Representative Mike Castle held a town-hall meeting at a community center in Georgetown, Delaware. Castle, a Republican, is the stateâ€™s only House member, and he had invited half a dozen health-care experts to take questions from his constituents. A woman in a red shirt spent most of the meeting with her hand in the air. When Castle called on her, she rose from her seat, clutching a ziplock bag filled with papers and a miniature American flag.
â€œCongressman Castle,â€ she began. â€œI have a birth certificate here from the United States of America saying Iâ€™m an American citizen. With a seal on it. Signed by a doctor. With a hospital administratorâ€™s name, my parents, my date of birth, the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20th and I want to know: why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?â€
“Yeah!â€ a man in the audience shouted. The Congressman appeared flummoxed. The health-care experts looked on, impassively.
â€œHe is not an American citizen,â€ the woman in red went on. â€œHe is a citizen of Kenya.
â€œI am American,â€ she continued. â€œMy father fought in World War Two with the greatest generation in the Pacific theatre.â€ She waved the flag and the ziplock bag in Castleâ€™s direction. â€œAnd I donâ€™t want this flag to change. I want my country back!â€ The community center erupted in applause.
The phenomenon known variously as the â€œbirther movement,â€ the â€œbirther conspiracy,â€ and the â€œbirther nut-job fantasyâ€ is now roughly two years old. Its adherents hold that Barack Obama, owing to his birthplace (wherever that may be), is ineligible to be President. As articles of faith go, this one falls somewhere between a belief in Santa Claus and â€œThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion.â€ Obamaâ€™s birth certificate, which has been posted on the Internet, shows that he was delivered in Honolulu on August 4, 1961, at 7:24 P.M. Further confirmation of these facts exists in the form of birth announcements that appeared in two Honolulu newspapers, the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, the relevant pages of which have also been scanned and posted on the Web. So unambiguous is the evidence that a spokesman for the Republican National Committee has called the question of Obamaâ€™s birthplace an â€œunnecessary distraction,â€ and most elected officials have either ignored it or dismissed it as nonsense.
â€œIf youâ€™re referring to the President there, he is a citizen of the United States,â€ Representative Castle told the woman in red. (Her response was to lead the crowd in an impromptu recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.)
Still, the birthers are legion. So far, more than half a dozen lawsuits have been filed alleging that Obama is not a â€œnatural bornâ€ citizen. One plaintiff, an Army reservist from Georgia, argued in court that he couldnâ€™t be sent to fight in Afghanistan because the military lacked a Commander-in-Chief. In a poll released over the summer, twenty-eight per cent of the Republicans surveyed said that they did not think Obama was born in the U.S., and thirty per cent said that they were unsure, meaning that fully half took birther ideas seriously enough to doubt the legitimacy of their government. When a video of the woman in red was posted on YouTube, it quickly went viral; within a few weeks, it had received some eight hundred thousand hits.
That such a wacky idea should be so persistent is, to put it mildly, disquieting. Here we are, quadrillions of bytes deep into the Information Age. And yet information, it seems, has never mattered less.
According to Cass R. Sunstein, the situation was to be anticipated. Sunstein, who for many years taught at the University of Chicago Law School, recently became the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. One of the countryâ€™s most prolific legal scholarsâ€”â€œHe seems to write a book about as often as most people run the dishwasherâ€ is how Esquire once put itâ€”Sunstein has long been preoccupied with what might be called â€œvirtual civics.â€ He has written four books on this topicâ€”â€œRepublic.comâ€ (2001), â€œInfotopiaâ€ (2006), â€œRepublic.com 2.0â€ (2007), and, now, â€œOn Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Doneâ€ (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $18)â€”all, to varying degrees, dystopic.
Sunstein begins with the relatively uncontroversial premise that a vigorous exchange of information is critical to the democratic process. As he acknowledges, the Web makes virtually unlimited amounts of information available; it is now possible to sit in a coffee shop in New York and read not just the newspapers from Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles but also those from Cairo, Beijing, and London, while simultaneously receiving e-mail alerts on the latest movie openings and corporate mergers. From this, it is often argued that the Internet is a boon to democracyâ€”if information is good, then more information must be better. But, in Sunsteinâ€™s view, the Web has a feature that is even more salient: at the same time that it makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable.
â€œThe most striking power provided by emerging technologies,â€ he has written, is the â€œgrowing power of consumers to â€˜filterâ€™ what they see.â€ Many of the most popular Web sites are still those belonging to the major news channels and papersâ€”CNN, the BBC, the New York Times. Increasingly, though, people are getting information from these sites in a customized form, by subscribing to e-mails and RSS feeds on their favorite topics and skipping subjects they find less congenial. Meanwhile, some of the fastest-growing sites are those which explicitly cater to their usersâ€™ ideologies. Left-leaning readers know, for example, that if they go to the Huffington Post or to AlterNet they will find stories that support their view of the world. Right-leaning readers know to go to the Drudge Report or to Newsmax to find stories that fit their preconceptions.
And what holds true for the news sites is even more so for the blogosphere, where itâ€™s possible to spend hours surfing without ever entering new waters. Conservative blogs like Power Line almost always direct visitors to other conservative blogs, like No Left Turns, while liberal blogs like Daily Kos guide them to others that are also liberal, like Firedoglake. A study of the twenty most-visited blogs in each camp in the months leading up to the 2004 Presidential election found that more than eighty-five per cent of their links were to other blogs with similar politics. When the studyâ€™s authors charted the links in graphic form, they came up with a picture of non-interactionâ€”a dense scribble on one side, a dense scribble on the other, and only the thinnest strands connecting the two. In 2006, Sunstein performed his own study of fifty political sites. He found that more than four-fifths linked to like-minded sites but only a third linked to sites with an opposing viewpoint. Moreover, many of the links to the opposing sideâ€™s sites were offered only to illustrate how â€œdangerous, dumb, or contemptible the views of the adversary really are.â€
â€œI do not mean to deny the obvious fact that any system that allows for freedom of choice will create some balkanization of opinion,â€ Sunstein writes, in â€œRepublic.com 2.0.â€ â€œLong before the advent of the Internet, and in an era of a handful of television stations, people made self-conscious choices among newspapers and radio stations.â€ But, he argues, Web culture takes choice to a new level.
In 1970, two psychologists at a small college in Michigan performed the following experiment. After administering a questionnaire on racial attitudes to seniors at some nearby high schools, they divided the students into groups. Those students who, based on their answers to the questionnaire, exhibited â€œhigh prejudiceâ€ were placed with others equally biased. Those who expressed â€œlow prejudiceâ€ were grouped with those who were similarly tolerant. The students were then instructed to discuss issues like school busing and fair housing. Finally, they were asked to fill out another questionnaire. The surveys revealed a striking pattern: simply by talking to one another, the bigoted students had become more bigoted and the tolerant more tolerant.
Peopleâ€™s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with like-minded others has become known as â€œgroup polarization,â€ and it has been documented in dozens of other experiments. In one, feminists who spoke with other feminists became more adamant in their feminism. In a second, opponents of same-sex marriage became even more opposed to the idea, while proponents shifted further in favor. In a third, doves who were grouped with other doves became more dovish still. (Interestingly, in this last experiment hawks, after talking to other hawks, became less hawkish, though they remained more hawkish than the doves.) Even judges have been shown to exhibit â€œgroup polarization.â€ Democratic appointees who sit with other Democrats are, itâ€™s been found, more likely to cast liberal votes than Democratic appointees who sit with Republicans, while Republican appointees on all-Republican panels are more likely to take conservative positions.
Why group polarization occurs is not entirely clear. According to one theory, when people engage in discussions with others who share their opinion they are apt to hear new arguments in favor of it, which prompts them to believe in it all the more strongly. According to a second theory, people are always trying to outdo one another; if everyone in a group agrees that men are jerks, then someone in the group is bound to argue that theyâ€™re assholes. In ordinary life, there are, of course, many opportunities to engage in group polarizationâ€”at the country club, in the union hall, at church or in synagogue, at the monthly meeting of the local feminist book club. Here again, though, Sunstein maintains, the Web takes things to a whole new level. (Group polarization, it should be noted, is the subject of another recent Sunstein book, â€œGoing to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide.â€) There is virtually no opinion an individual can hold that is so outlandish that he will not find other believers on the Web. â€œViews that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible, or bizarre in most communities,â€ Sunstein observes. Racists used to have to leave home to meet up with other racists (or Democrats with other Democrats, or Republicans with Republicans); now they need not even get dressed in order to â€œchatâ€ with their ideological soul mates.
â€œIt seems plain that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another,â€ Sunstein writes. He refers to this process as â€œcyberpolarization.â€
Put the Webâ€™s filtering tools together with cyberpolarization and what you get, by Sunsteinâ€™s account, are the perfect conditions for spreading misinformation. Who, on liberal blogs, is going to object to (or even recognize) a few misstatements about Sarah Palin? And who, on conservative blogs, is going to challenge mistaken assertions (or, if you prefer, lies) about President Obama?
In the spring of 2008, as the general-election campaign was getting under way, several rumors were circulating about Obama. In addition to the one about his birthplace, there were rumors that he was a Muslim, that he had attended a madrassa in Indonesia, and that he refused to put his hand over his heart when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Obamaâ€™s campaign aides set up a Web site in response, called Fight the Smears. On it, they posted a clip of a CNN story showing the nondenominational school that Obama had attended in Jakarta and a video of Obama leading the U.S. Senate in the Pledge (with his hand over his heart). They also posted a scan of the candidateâ€™s birth certificate. â€œNext time someone talks about Barackâ€™s birth certificate, make sure they see this page,â€ the message accompanying the scan read.
If the Web functioned as its boosters maintainâ€”as a â€œfrictionlessâ€ source of informationâ€”then that posting would have been the end of things. Instead, of course, it was just the beginning. When those who had been â€œtalking aboutâ€ Obamaâ€™s birth certificate looked at it on the Web, what they saw was exactly the opposite of what the Obama campaign had intended. Some blogs noted that if the scan of the certificate was enlarged several times a light halo could be seen around each letter. The crosshatched border on the document did not seem to match the cross-hatching on another birth certificate issued in Hawaii around the same time. The scan did not show the raised seal required of an official state document. Nor did it reveal any crease marks. (A real birth certificate would have had to be folded before being sent in the mail.)
â€œThe image is a horrible forgery,â€ a self-described â€œforensic computer examinerâ€ calling himself Techdude declared on the right-wing blog Atlas Shrugs.
â€œEnough work has been done by photoshop experts to show that this is not a real document,â€ ClearCase_guy asserted on the conservative Web site Free Republic. â€œAnd that begs the question: WHY?â€
Apparently still operating under the assumption that people turn to the Web for information, the Obama campaign tried again. It allowed FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan research organization, to inspect the document at the campaignâ€™s headquarters, in Chicago.
â€œFactCheck.org staffers have now seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate,â€ the groupâ€™s Web site announced on August 21, 2008. â€œOur conclusion: Obama was born in the U.S.A. just as he has always said.â€ Nine high-resolution photos accompanied the post, showing the raised seal, as well as a set of creases.
The birthers were unfazed. â€œI, for one, of course, am not surprised,â€ JM Hanes wrote on the Web site JustOneMinute. â€œI mean heâ€™s had more than two months to find a better forger.â€ Others insisted that the birth certificate was meaningless, since it was just a computer-generated copy of the original handwritten or typed certificate that should have been filed with the state of Hawaii. When, on October 31, 2008, the Hawaiian health director, Chiyome Fukino, issued a statement saying that she had â€œpersonally seen and verified that the Hawaiâ€˜i State Department of Health has Sen. Obamaâ€™s original birth certificate on record,â€ this evidence, too, was dismissed. At the time of Obamaâ€™s Inauguration, the following joke was careering around the Web:
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Knock, knock.
BARACK OBAMA: Whoâ€™s there?
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Kenya.
BARACK OBAMA: Kenya who?
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Kenya show me your birth certificate before youâ€™re sworn in?
In July, when the clip of the woman in red went viral, Fukino felt compelled to announce, for a second time, that Obama had a valid birth certificate on file. FactCheck.org reported this development under the heading â€œThe Last Word? We Wish.â€
Sunsteinâ€™s theory of the (Dis)Information Age is pointedly nonjudgmental. By his account, the problem is basically structural: certain tendencies of the human mind interact badly with certain features of modern technology, much as certain prescription drugs interact badly with alcohol. Young or old, bigoted or tolerant, liberal or conservativeâ€”everyone is equally implicated here, since everyone is predisposed to the same, or at least analogous, mental habits and has access to the same technological tools. But does that really explain contemporary American politics?
The acquisition of knowledge is, as Sunstein points out, a social process: it is shaped by language, by custom, and, since the Enlightenment, by certain widely accepted standards of evidence and rationality. Suppose there is a debate that pits the National Academy of Sciences against a group of armchair meteorologists. Or, letâ€™s say there is a disagreement between Sarah Palin on the one side and every major medical and news organization in the country on the other. Whom are you going to believe? There really shouldnâ€™t be any contest here, and yet there is. For a great many Americans, global warming is a hoax and â€œdeath panelsâ€ a reality.
The most plausible explanation for this dark, post-Enlightenment turn is unavailable to Sunstein; so hard is he trying to be nonpartisan that he canâ€™t see the nuts for the trees. Several decades ago, a detachment of the American right cut itself loose from reason, and it has been drifting along happily ever since. If the birthers are more evidently kooky than the global-warming â€œskepticsâ€ or the death-panellers or the supply-siders or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, they are, in their fundamental disregard for the facts, actually mainstream. In a telling association, protesters at the anti-Obama rally held in Washington, D.C., on September 12th carried both â€œWhereâ€™s the Birth Certificate?â€ placards and signs mocking climate legislation, as well as posters accusing the President of being a terrorist, a socialist, and a fascist. The historian Richard Hofstadterâ€™s description of the far right in the era of Barry Goldwater could apply equally well today: â€œI call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.â€
Ironically enough, Sunstein himself has recently been the object of a right-wing disinformation campaign. As soon as word got out that he was going to be nominated by the Obama Administration to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the American Conservative Union set up a Web site on him. It was called stopsunstein.com. The group objected to, among other things, a suggestion that Sunstein had made in a 2004 essay that animals be given legal standing. This (admittedly provocative) proposal was offered in the context of a discussion of how difficult it is to enforce existing laws against animal cruelty. It was quickly caricatured as an invitation to cows and chickens to clog up the dockets.
â€œImagine returning from a successful hunting trip . . . only to find out that youâ€™ve been subpoenaed for killing your prize,â€ one online commentator railed. â€œWho knows, maybe Sunstein would have the family of the dead animal serving as witnesses in court!â€ Holds were placed on Sunsteinâ€™s nomination by two Republican senators, other distortions of his writings were offered, and, finally, Fox Newsâ€™s Glenn Beck got into the act, exhorting, in a Twitter message to his supporters, â€œFIND EVERYTHING YOU CAN ON CASS SUNSTEIN.â€ (In an interesting twist on group polarization, some liberal bloggers, who had initially not been keen on Sunsteinâ€™s nomination, decided at this point that it must be O.K.; as one of them put it, â€œIf Glenn Beck and the other loons are against him, how bad could he be?â€)
The Web is certainly a transformative technology, just as TV and radio and newspapers once were. Thereâ€™s a temptation, as a result, to confuse the medium with the message, to assume that, because the Internet is being used to produce a certain political effect, it was somehow destined to do so. This account is, in the end, too easy on us (or at least on them). To borrow that old favorite of the right: computers donâ€™t spread rumors; people do. ?
This article appears at New Yorker.com Â»
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