Do you have to believe in something to start a movement? That's one of the questions raised by The Romney Mega Prayer, a single-serving site that has organized a one-night prayer group for Mitt Romney for thousands nationwide.
There's just one hitch: The man behind Romney Mega Prayer isn't voting for Mitt Romney — and he doesn't believe in prayer.
The website takes the visitor through a flowchart that makes the case for prayer as a scientifically, statistically measurable phenomenon, casually linking much-cited but often disputed studies like "The efficacy of 'distant healing'," which purport to show the influence of prayer on people or events. And — next to a chart that shows a projected Obama win based on "likely results based on polls" — the site suggests that prayer remains the only way for "Good People" to help Mitt Romney into office.
While the site has only been online for six days, over 4,000 people have signed up for an email list, while over 12,000 have "liked" and shared the site on Facebook. According to the site's creator, Sean Tevis, a "little more than half" of those emails appear to be fake; among the remaining 2,000 may be at least some people who intend to help pray Mitt Romney into office Monday evening.
Tevis, a 43-year-old interaction designer in the Kansas City area — who had a brief dalliance with politics in 2010 when he ran (unsuccessfully) for Kansas state representative off the strength of a Web comic that went viral — didn't create Romney Mega Prayer because he's a concerned Christian. Instead, the idea came to him after he grew concerned over the number of his friends and family who seemed to believe almost anything they read online about Obama and the current administration, no matter how preposterous.
"It all started around the time I saw [people talking] about Obama's intention to build an $8 billion abortion complex," Tevis told NBC News, referring to a popular (but satirical) story published by The Onion. "How can people believe that? But I know people who think Stephen Colbert really is a conservative TV host."
That credulity led Tevis to wonder if it would be possible to create a site that could pull double-duty as something that would appeal to religious Romney supporters while simultaneously entertaining those who aren't. "Is it possible to build something that some people will love because they think it's real," said Tevis, "and other people will love because they know it's satire?"
How many Christians actually took the message to heart is hard to discern. From the responses in private via the email form (which includes lots of bawdy poking at Romney via fake email addresses, according to Tevis), as well as publicly on the #romneymegaprayer hashtag on Twitter, it still seems that the great majority of people who stumble upon it are not Romney supporters, but people who identify that it's a prank, or people who think it's real and want to make fun of it.
But some on Twitter and in private correspondence with Tevis demonstrate that his experiment may have had some success, that his parody of faith-based politics is also an opportunity for people of faith to take action against what they are being told are insurmountable odds.
In an email forwarded to NBC News by Tevis, a woman suggested "announcements about this group be made from ... pulpits this weekend."
Tevis acknowledged the site as an example of Poe's Law, an Internet axiom that states: "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing."
The site may end up providing more than just entertainment value (at the expense of believers). By convincing religious Romney supporters that the race was already lost but for divine intervention, some voters could be influenced into not voting at all. While Tevis acknowledges that possibility, he also offers a countervalent scenario: "My [Obama-supporting] political friends worry about it from the other view: that this might get people motivated."
Whatever the outcome, Romney Mega Prayer does reveal a subtle turn on our ideas around activism and group dynamics when social media makes it easy and inexpensive to bring together like-minded people even when the instigator of a movement turns out to be a provocateur.
One on hand, playing on others' belief systems is nothing new: Boil away the credos and yesterday's Yippie is today's Internet troll. Yet it's easier than ever to communicate with an audience; a well-structured piece of disinformation will travel on its own memetic steam across the Internet.
Although single-serving sites like Romney Mega Prayer may only affect relatively small numbers of voters, the relative low cost of developing one easily scales up: future campaigns could see the single-serving site grow from an occasional aside, a la the Democratic Party's "Romney Tax Plan" parody, to a wide-spectrum ideological assault on opposition campaigns.
While the Internet has an immune system against the spread of disinformation, fact-checking only works if people stop to question information in the first place — and for some, the notion that people would gather to pray for an intended outcome doesn't ring any alarm bells. Among those who took the site at face value, Tevis said, "nobody was questioning who was behind this, and that was the thing that really troubled me." Without questions, damaging rumors with real-world ramifications can spread quickly, from lies about the condition of New York City perpetrated by "@comfortablysmug" on Twitter during the night of Hurricane Sandy to the basic ignorance that lead to attacks on American Sikh communities after 9/11.
But for those who believe that prayer can affect global events like elections, wars or weather, even questioning divine will might seem presumptuous — a lack of faith itself. The Romney Mega Prayer site quotes Jesus from Matthew 18:19: "Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on Earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven." Perhaps this is true even when one of the people doing the asking doesn't really mean it. If the people pray, and Romney wins the election, does Tevis get credit?
Joel Johnson is a technology & science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be followed on Twitter at @joeljohnson.