News / Middle East

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.


Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

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.

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

Key stock indexes in London, Paris and Germany were down nearly three percent, while US market indexes were off around two percent in early trading More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs