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

Key Al-Shabab Commander Captured

Zakariye Ismail Hersi was captured in a raid Saturday morning in the town of El Wak near the border with Kenya More

Relations Between Pakistan, Afghanistan Key to Fighting Taliban

A Pakistani official tells VOA that anti-terrorism campaign has resulted in improved counter-terrorism cooperation with Afghanistan More

160,000 Displaced by Flooding in Malaysia

Prime Minister Najib Razak visits hard-hit Kelantan state, announces nearly $145M in additional relief for victims 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.
Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syriai
X
Jeff Seldin
December 24, 2014 11:38 PM
Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syria

Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.
Video

Video Russians Head Into Holiday Facing Economic Malaise

Russian preparations for the New Year holiday are clouded by economic recession and a tumbling currency, the ruble. Nonetheless, people in the Russian capital appear to be in a festive mood. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Mombasa in Holiday Tourism Slump Due to Security Fears

Kenya's usually popular beachside tourist destination of Mombasa is seeing a much slower holiday season this year due to fears of insecurity as the country has suffered from a string of terror attacks linked to Somali militants. Mohammed Yusuf reports for VOA on how businessmen and tourists feel about the situation.
Video

Video For Somalis, 2014 Marked by Political Instability Within Government

While Somalia has long been torn apart by warfare and violence, this year one of the country's biggest challenges has come from within the government, as political infighting curtails the country's progress, threatens security gains and disappoints the international community. VOA's Gabe Joselow report.
Video

Video US Political Shift Could Affect Iran Nuclear Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis are continuing into 2015 after Iran and six world powers failed to agree by a November deadline. U.S. domestic politics, however, could complicate efforts to reach a deal in the new year. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video NYSE: The Icon of Capitalism

From its humble beginnings in 1792 to its status as an economic bellweather for the world, the New York Stock Exchange is an integral part of the story of America. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from Wall Street.
Video

Video Islamic State Emergence Transforms Syria and Iraq in 2014

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a potent force in early 2014 changed the dynamics of the region. Their brutal methods - including executions and forced slavery - horrified the international community, drawing Western forces into the conflict. It also splintered the war in Syria, where more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell looks back at a deadly year in the region -- and what 2015 may hold.
Video

Video Massive Study Provides Best Look at Greenland Ice Loss Yet

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than predicted, according to a new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences that combines NASA satellite data and aerial missions. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the finding means coastal communities worldwide could be at greater risk, sooner, from the impact of rising seas.
Video

Video US Marines, Toys for Tots Bring Christmas Joy

Christmas is a time for giving in the United States, especially to young children who look forward to getting presents. But some families don't have money to buy gifts. For nearly 70 years, a U.S. Marines-sponsored program has donated toys and distributed them to underprivileged children during the holiday season. VOA's Deborah Block tells us about the annual Toys for Tots program.
Video

Video France Rocked by Attacks as Fear of ISIS-Inspired Terror Grows

Eleven people were injured, two seriously, when a man drove his car into crowds of pedestrians Sunday night in the French city of Dijon, shouting ‘God is Great’ in Arabic. It’s the latest in a series of apparent ‘lone-wolf’ terror attacks in the West. Henry Ridgwell looks at the growing threat of attacks, which security experts say are likely inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" terror group.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid