Every election cycle, voters must sift through media sources and other information outlets to discern where the candidates stand on various issues. But some political watchers say the proliferation of Internet rumors and misinformation is taking a front seat in this campaign season and may influence the outcome like never before.
“It’s starkly different even from the last election cycle when we had a relatively computer-literate electorate,” says Derick K. Smith, a professor of political science at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. “Now many people are relying heavily on the Internet—the blogs and the Internet news sources—to get their information.”
However, much of the information that is posted on Internet sites—particularly sites that are not affiliated with mainstream media organizations—is unverified. While the immediacy of the Internet can help some Americans stay on top of the issues, “there are ways for people to manipulate that information,” Smith says.
The campaign of Sen. Barack Obama in particular has seen a deluge of misinformation sent out over the Internet ranging from rumors that Obama is a Muslim to the accusation that Obama’s wife, Michelle, used the word “whitey” in a public speech, both charges the Obama campaign has vehemently denied. In an unprecedented move, the Obama campaign earlier this month launched a Website, FightTheSmears.com, as a forum to combat the rumors that are being circulated on the Internet.
Sen. John McCain has not been immune to the Internet rumor mill either. Last week, the Website RightPundits.com featured the back story behind a rumor that circulated the Web charging that McCain’s wife, Cindy, had an affair with an unnamed divorce lawyer.
There is no doubt that Americans are turning to the Internet for their political news en masse. According to a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study, 46% of Americans have logged online to catch up on political news or to share their thoughts about the candidates and the issues.
But is the glut of misinformation and unproved allegations succeeding in getting voters’ minds off of the real issues? Many Americans say yes, according to that same study. Sixty percent of respondents say they believe the Internet is home to a host of incorrect information and propaganda that many Americans mistakenly believe to be accurate. And 35% of respondents say the Internet gives those with extreme positions the opportunity to drown out the views of average citizens.
The fact that race is playing such an integral part in the presidential contest intensifies the problem, says John L. Jackson Jr., an associate professor of communication and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.
When relating to those of other races, people are often irrational when it comes to their fears and paranoias, Jackson says. “So the rumor-mongering and conspiracy-theorizing just feeds on that.”
The anonymity that the Internet provides also makes it more likely that some people will spread rumors in order to derail a candidate’s chances of winning since there is the notion that they