If you’re the sort of person who believes there’s still doubt that Barack Obama was born in the United States, you can go to WorldNetDaily for all of your news. There you’ll find several updates a day on this developing story. You can also order a DVD documentary, “A Question of Eligibility,” set for release Tuesday, Aug. 4 — the date on which Obama was born 48 years ago in, presumably, some other country, which would make him ineligible to be president.
Or you can check out the blog of Orly Taitz, the attorney-dentist who is helping to raise awareness of Obama’s “illegitimacy” and urging her readers to confront elected officials at town hall meetings. There’s plenty of coverage at ObamaBirthers.com. Or you can check the latest posts on FreeRepublic.com, where bloggers follow all the latest twists and turns of the story and people post messages asking others to share information about things they think they remember about the dispute.
For that matter, you can watch Lou Dobbs on CNN or listen to his radio talk show, where he continues to demand that Obama produce his birth certificate. The only danger will come if you watch anything else on CNN or on the network news, or read the major newspapers or their Web sites. If you do, you might find that the “Obama is a foreigner” theory has been thoroughly debunked, with mounds of evidence, over and over again.
But if you still believe the president does not meet the constitutional requirement of being “a natural born citizen” you also probably know that the mainstream media are big put-up jobs, the last places you can turn to for reliable information.
The “birther” movement has become a lesson on how much harder it is for political parties to shut down their fringe elements in today’s fragmented communications environment.
Even if the Republican Party tried to launch an all-out effort to reject the birthers, it would have to find a strategy that would work when conspiracy theorists can use blogs, social networking and talk radio to shut out any views they don’t want to hear.
“Now it’s much harder to do,” said Republican strategist Brian Nick, a former Senate press secretary and now a director of the Strategic Perception consulting firm. “You’re sort of playing Whac-A-Mole. It’s almost like you have to go back to the conventional media and hope they can knock it down.”
Conspiracy theories aren’t new to either party, of course. The Democrats have had to deal with their own supporters who believed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job, and, briefly, with Internet-driven rumors last summer that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin wasn’t really the mother of her youngest son, Trig. The danger to the GOP, though, is that the birther movement has become louder and more self-sustaining than the Democrats’ recent examples — gaining attention with a widely circulated video of a woman yelling at Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle at a town hall meeting in Delaware last month. More such incidents could convince moderate and independent voters that this fringe movement represents mainstream Republican thinking.
“If it continues, then we should all speak out,” said Peter T. King of New York, one of the few remaining GOP moderates in the House. King doesn’t think the birther movement rises to that level yet, but he sees the potential danger if the birthers continue to distract attention from real policy debates. “If the public can turn against Obama because they think he’s too liberal,” King said, “they’ll turn against us if they think we’re nuts.”
The trouble for both parties, though, is that the proliferation of new, user-generated media means conspiracy theories can become more self-sustaining than they used to be. Like-minded people seek one another out through blogs and social networking and similarly arrange their social encounters in the real world so they don’t have their views challenged. And when high-profile media figures such as Dobbs nod to the conspiracy theorists to boost their own ratings, the fringe groups get a platform that allows them to thrive even in the face of numerous attempts by the conventional media to set the record straight.
“It’s definitely harder because the whole communications structure is decentralized,” said Democratic strategist Brent Blackaby of California-based Blackrock Associates. In the past, he said, a political operative trying to shut down a conspiracy theory could do it by badgering editors or political reporters to run stories correcting the untruths. “But here, it’s sort of, where would you turn?”
Ignoring is bliss
For the most part, top Republicans think the best strategy is to give the birthers as little attention as possible. Leadership aides believe such people are still relatively small in number and not much of a threat to the credibility of the party — and that a large-scale effort to discredit them could actually backfire by stirring them up and giving them even more attention.
Republicans had a chance to dismiss the rumors in a low-level way last week, when the House and Senate, in adopting a resolution honoring the 50th anniversary of Hawaii’s statehood, declared, “The 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.” The resolution won the support of 158 Republicans in the House, where no one voted against it; Senate Republicans didn’t have to take a stand because the measure was approved by voice vote.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who tried to shut down the birther rumors during the presidential campaign by posting a copy of Obama’s birth certificate on the campaign’s FightTheSmears.com Web site, noted in frustration that “nothing will assuage them” because “for $15, you can get an Internet address and say whatever you want.”
In some ways the birther movement, which makes much of the fact that the Hawaii Health Department has not produced an original long-form birth certificate, shows the dark side of the Internet’s potential for mobilizing political activists. Recent Democratic campaigns have used it to find and communicate directly with supporters, Blackaby said, and the Obama campaign took that practice to new heights. The other side, however, is that it also gives fringe groups new power to one another, spread rumors and lies, and raise their level of collective outrage.
“The Internet is simulating the intensity of 19th century political clubs,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia. “They are insulated, they are not forums for dissent, but they are entirely outrage machines.” Moreover, people who actively promote the birther rumors are probably living in neighborhoods where their neighbors believe the same thing — and social psychologists have found that members of groups with extreme beliefs try to stand out by becoming even more extreme than the rest, said Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort,” which argued that Americans tend to live among people with similar tastes and views.
“Since they don’t live around people who disagree, there’s no moderating influence,” said Bishop. “It looks crazy, but we all do it.”
That’s why today’s GOP leaders would be hard pressed to duplicate the feat of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr., who in 1962 coordinated a campaign to discredit the John Birch Society. Their fear was that the views of its founder, Robert Welch, who once called President Dwight D. Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” would drag down the rest of the conservative movement. As Goldwater wrote in a letter to Buckley’s National Review, “We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.”
That kind of message would be harder to send in today’s atomized media environment — but not impossible. If a political party wants to shut down a conspiracy theory that’s spreading in the new media, it has to do so using creative new media strategies such as Web videos to set the record straight, said Blackaby. “They’re creating their own filter; they’re circulating their own information,” he said of the fringe groups. “You’re not going to be able to counter that in the conventional media. You’ve got to create your own counternarrative in that same space.”
Matt Mackowiak, founder and president of Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican crisis communications firm, said his party could still send a powerful message by turning to prominent party figures, such as presidents George Bush and George W. Bush or the top House and Senate Republican leaders, to make a statement rejecting the birthers. But until there’s evidence that the fringe group is causing broad damage to the party, Mackowiak said, “nobody wants to engage with a very small, vocal minority that believes in this very strongly and is not reasonable enough to consider facts.”
It’s enough of a challenge that most Republicans say they’d rather focus on real issues where they think they’re starting to put the Democrats on the defensive, such as health care. “This is about real policy disagreements,” said King. “ Barack Obama is a decent, honorable guy. I disagree with him about 90 percent of the time.” He’ll get to talk about that, though, only if the birthers actually go away — and that decision may be out of the party’s hands.