The age of digital media has launched a revolution in the way people get news. With the Internet, average people now have access to a previously unthinkable amount of information at the touch of a button. But this most modern of technologies has become fertile ground for an ancient problem: rumors.
In the cutthroat world of political campaigning, partisans of every candidate have taken full advantage of the power of the Internet to spread damaging rumors about their opponents. Blogs and chain e-mails make it easy to instantaneously circulate rumors, far outpacing the reporting of legitimate news.
When Sarah Palin was selected by John McCain to be his running mate it is doubtless that, for many, the first information heard about her was rumor. Did you know that she was a member of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party? Did you know that she endorsed the controversial Pat Buchanan for president in 2000? Did you know that as governor she dramatically cut funding for special needs education? Don't you think that one of her children is actually her daughter's, whose pregnancy she covered up by raising the child herself? News of her daughter's pregnancy rendered this last rumor impossible, but the others continue to make the rounds, despite being false or misleading according to FactCheck.org.
For a politician new to the national stage, this kind of gossip is incredibly damaging and unfair, and those who present legitimate criticisms of Palin should say so. For Obama, who is more known, you might think that it would be harder to make rumors stick. But despite a well-documented controversy concerning the Christian church he attended, e-mails claiming that Obama is a Muslim militant have found a receptive audience. Circular e-mails have also spread claims about supposed anti-white racism or anti-American sentiments that are based on evidence as flimsy as "quotes" from Obama's books that upon inspection are not to be found anywhere.
To those who have become aware of these kinds of false rumors, the first impulse is often to blame the other candidate's campaign. But in most cases these rumors are started anonymously, with no involvement from any campaign. The best defense against rumors is not to blame the people who start the rumors but for everyone to adopt an attitude of skepticism about criticisms of any politician.
It's very simple: Don't believe everything you read or hear. Do your own research. Most people think they know this, but the pervasiveness of false rumors suggests otherwise. So many debates about media bias or which politician is the most honest miss the fundamental point: that it is every voter's individual responsibility to seek the truth. The more people accept this responsibility, the less power rumors will have, and the more political campaigns can focus on the real issues.