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The Electronic Rumor Mill

The false rumor that President Barack Obama is Muslim has been getting a lot of attention recently, fueled in part by a new poll suggesting a growing number of Americans believe it to be true. The rumor itself isn't new - it's been around since before Mr. Obama began his run for the Presidency. But it has been spreading rapidly lately - due in large measure to the Internet.

Call it gossip, or scuttlebutt. Call it "the grapevine," "the telegraph," or "the buzz" - it's all the same. It's rumor, and thanks to the Internet, it can spread around the world faster and farther than ever.

Witness the latest rumor making the rounds in the United States - that President Obama is Muslim. Even though demonstrably false - he's a Christian - the rumor has been spreading virally on the Internet recently, fueled in part by several recent polls suggesting upward of 1 in 5 Americans believe it to be true. It's spread so fast, in fact, that the White House was forced to respond.

"The President is obviously a Christian," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton recently told reporters aboard Air Force One. "He prays every day." It did not quell the falsehood.

Like many rumors, it's very difficult to determine where this one began. In interviews and his memoirs, Mr. Obama often discussed his father's Muslim faith, and his experience growing up for a time in Indonesia. In 2007, emails began circulating raising the question. And in 2006, conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel made the claim in a posting titled "Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim."

Despite hundreds of news reports debunking the claim, the "Obama is a Muslim" rumor lives on.

"Rumors to start with are stories with these interesting properties that people want to tell them and they spread quickly," says Jenna Burrell, assistant professor in the School of Information at UC-Berkeley. "When you add the Internet into that, you have the possibility of these stories being even further spread, even more rapidly circulating the globe."

Burrell has made rumor the subject of her academic research. While most often false, there are frequently elements in popular rumors that contain some grain of truth. More importantly, she says, rumors very often have the "feel" of truth about them.

"What's interesting about them is that they seem to be these stories that compel retelling," says Burrell. "And in particular they really help people manage some kind of uncertainty or anxiety. And I think with the story about Obama being a Muslim, it's a way that people who are political opponents, or are members of political parties that oppose Obama, it's a way of really making that opposition concrete."

While it's the job of journalists to look into claims and evaluate them objectively based on verifiable information, that process can be slow and laborious; something most non-journalists don't have the time or inclination to do. For the general public, a rumor's believability, says Burrell, comes from both its source and its retelling. The more often you hear something, she notes, the more likely you are to believe it.

"I think this explains why the percentage of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim has gone up, because when you continue to hear that same claim from a number of different people, it's sort of normal for people to start to believe it, just from the sheer number of people who are telling that story and how often they're hearing it," says Burrell.

In part because of its speed and ubiquity, Burrell believes the Internet encourages less rigorous searching of fact, in favor of looking for those who share your perspective. If you generally trust someone online, you'll probably generally trust whatever they have to say.

Burrell cites an example that occurred in Ghana just a few days after 2010's Haitian earthquake. Within a period of 24 hours, a rumor cropped up and spread across the entire nation that a massive earthquake was soon to hit Ghana. Spread mostly by mobile phone, it sent panicked thousands into the streets.

"10, 20 years ago, when people didn't have mobile phones, the distance that that sort of a story would have circulated would have been very limited," she says. "But now that there's good cellphone coverage throughout the country, and everyone seems to have a cellphone, that story spread so rapidly that you have huge numbers of Ghanaians actually leaving their homes in the middle of the night to stay out-of-doors because they were worried about being crushed by this impending earthquake."

The late American journalist Shana Alexander once put it this way: "Trying to squash a rumor is like trying to unring a bell."

In the Internet age, it's far more likely that that bell will be heard by many more people.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.