With good reason, Sarah Palin has been touted as the right’s answer to Barack Obama. And in one especially important way, her abrupt rise from obscurity has given her something else in common with the Democratic nominee: she has catalyzed a fevered subculture of forwarded emails and viral conspiracy theories.
Now the race is on, as it was with Obama, for Palin to define herself against an onslaught of negative portrayals.
Obama’s campaign has made no attempt to challenge the Republican portrayal of her as “living breathing a replica of the middle class” (as a former White House official put it). But that narrative is being challenged online by a flood of rumor, half-truth, lies, and speculation defining her as an American exotic, a countrified stranger with mysterious but strong religious beliefs, a confusing personal story, and extreme politics.
“Information abhors a vacuum, and like Barack Obama was at first, Sarah Palin was an unknown quanity,” said the internet folklorist David Emery. “When you have all that pressure and very little information – that’s when the rumors start flying.”
Emery has been frantically sorting Palin fact from fiction on his Urban Legends website for the last week – “It’s been crazy,” he said — as has David Mikkelson, the co-creator of the urban legend clearinghouse Snopes.com.
“When we compile the top 25 things people are looking for, Barack Obama’s been at the top of that list for months and months. In the last couple of days, Palin’s displaced him,” Mikkelson said.
Some of the viral emails coursing around the Internet about Palin contain straightforward criticism, but many others are totally unsubstantiated, drawn from a stew of race, sex, religion, and pure paranoia.
They’re also, for aficionados of the Obama rumor mill, jarringly familiar: There are allegations of racist comments, demands to see birth certificates, claims that the candidate is the thrall of an extreme faith, and that her associates are radicals and terrorists – all charges leveled at Obama as well.
“There are a large number of people who are very suspicious of Sarah Palin that are looking for a face to put on it, and these stories are ways to try to dramatize that,” said Bill Ellis, an expert on urban legends at Penn State University.
Other emails – notably a widely circulated, fake list of books she tried to ban from a town library or a phony quote about her referring to dinosaurs as “lizards of Satan” – exaggerate conservative views that Democrats already find extreme.
“They really speak to the things people are afraid of in the opposite party,” said Emery. “She has extreme views, as far as Democrats are concerned, so you find those exaggerated in the rumor-mongering.”
Other emails are specific to her sex: Rumors of affairs, or that her child isn’t her own, and digitally altered images purporting to be pictures of her nude, or in racy outfits or dressed in a bikini and holding an assault rifle.
“People tend to pay attention to the things that are very basic,” said Mikkelson. “A long, detailed analysis of a candidate’s voting record gets out there and people’s eyes kind of glaze over, but put some simple issue out there and people will seize onto and circulate stuff about.”
(There is one exception to this pattern: A long, often accurate email criticizing Palin’s policy and character by a Wasilla Democrat, Anne Kilkenny, has circulated extremely widely.
McCain’s and Palin’s campaign, meanwhile, has tried – as Obama’s does at times – to blame the smears on the opposing camp, with little evidence.
"We have seen a number of ridiculous smears and attacks against Governor Palin from inside the Obama campaign and with outside organizations supporting Barack Obama,” said a McCain-Palin spokesman, Ben Porritt. “These attacks are emblematic of all that is wrong in Washington.”
Obama last January suggested, without evidence, that the viral emails claiming he was a Muslim were part of a “systematic political strategy” linked to the primary calendar. More recently, he said Republicans would scare voters (as some, though not the McCain campaign, have) with the false rumor that he’s a Muslim.
The candidates’ critics, meanwhile, are aware of the viral power of stories that ring – to some partisans – viscerally true, despite their thin sourcing. After the website L.A. Progressive published a story – attributed to a waitress named “Lucille” in an unnamed Alaska establishment – claiming that Palin had used a racial slur to refer to Obama, the website operators watched the story ripple outward.
“Last Friday we ran an article that has been spreading on the Internet like wildfire!” said the site’s editors, Dick Price and Sharon Kyle, in an email to subscribers. “Since then, thousands of people have written us.”
Experts on urban legends say that the cases of Obama and Palin match a pattern familiar from the world of commerce.
“If you have a new product that emerged suddenly into the marketplace and took up a major share of the existing market then that in itself would be enough to attract urban legends for the simple reason that it’s new, it’s popular, it’s relatively unknown,” said Penn State’s Ellis. “For that reason people are going to be speculating: ‘Who is this Sarah Palin? Where did she come from?’”
Indeed, academics have already begun to draw a line between the political emails and the commercial legends. Patricia Turner, who studies rumors and urban legends at the University of California Davis, said she has a forthcoming paper titled, “What do Barack Obama and Snapple Iced Tea Have in Common?” The paper compares the whispered smears to the urban legends about ties to white supremacists that beset Snapple when it suddenly became popular.
Obama began responding forcefully to the whispering campaign about his faith in the fall of 2007, when polls began showing that about 10 percent of Americans believed he was a Muslim, and when he and his supporters started taking questions about his religion around Iowa. By January, he was mentioning the emails in his stump speech and had developed his own mass email tool on his website to attempt to respond to them.
McCain’s campaign also clearly sees the danger, and seems to have learned from Obama’s experience how best to respond: Forcefully and publicly, at times trying – with little evidence – to blame the faceless negative campaigns on a rival candidate.
McCain’s camp has put out memos responding to the faceless smears about Palin, one debunking the long list of allegedly banned books, which included books published after Palin left the Wasilla mayor’s office. (Palin did reportedly inquire in 1996 about her town’s policy on banning books, but no names of books that she sought to ban has emerged, and the City of Wasilla says no books have ever been banned from its library.) McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, also accused Obama’s campaign – with no evidence – of smearing Palin’s family.
While Obama and, now, Palin battle viral smears, one candidate has remained almost entirely untouched by them: Senator John McCain.
“McCain has always been fairly far down the list of things that are going around, he’s been around so long and is so well known,” said Snopes.com’s Mikkelson. “Whateer’s being discussed about John McCain is substantive policy stuff.”
Whisper campaigns are as old as the republic, but conservatives have made better use of the Internet for them since the 1990s, said Danielle Allen, a scholar from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. who has studied the Obama emails.
"The phenomenon seems to have developed during the Clinton presidency while the right was in opposition. So it has always seemed to me only a matter of time, including with time spent in opposition, until the left would catch up," she said.
Their resulting power and resonance is a reminder of the irrationality of politics, and of a race that both sides have said, at times, should be about the issues.
“It’s the opposite of what you think because we all want an informed electorate who would vote for people based on their positions,” said the University of California’s Turner. “It’s the opposite. That’s not happening.”