When 1-year-old Charlie bit the finger of his 3-year-old brother, their parents put their video on YouTube. It went viral, and by last month it had a record 433 million views. Politicians will do well to heed this as a lesson and a warning.
The Internet has added exponentially to a national habit of multiplying a rumor, a spoof or sometimes attack through word of mouth, graffiti (as “Kilroy was here”) and chain letters. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can quickly spread a gaffe or video to millions. Email provides a powerful form of electronic chain letter when each recipient forwards an item to everyone on his or her address list, those recipients do the same and so on. Rapid growth of one of these communication flurries is known as “going viral,” like a disease epidemic.
Political activists have caught onto the power of viral communication, and some politicians have felt its sting. Barack Obama felt it as a U.S. senator in 2007, although as a beneficiary. A young woman on a video sang seductively, “I got a crush on Obama,” and it quickly went viral. He complained that the Obama Girl video had upset his daughters, but it helped him toward the presidency.
President Obama soon became a prime adverse target. False rumors spread through the Internet, often going viral, that he was not truly a U.S. citizen, that he wouldn’t allow a Christmas tree or religious ornaments in the White House, that he planned to impose a 1 percent tax on all bank deposits and that he received a Fulbright Scholarship that was awarded only to foreign-born students. All were found to be fraudulent. A widely circulated photograph seemed to show the president and his wife holding their left hands over their chests instead of their right hands over their hearts, but it had been doctored.
As the 2012 presidential campaign goes forward, viral Internet videos have spread false rumors as well as actual gaffes and helped torpedo the campaigns of Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination.
Last month, Rick Santorum became a victim of an Internet smear when a fictional account of his supposed speech attacking heavy metal music as “satanic” went viral. Another viral attack, posted on Facebook, had him saying, “Gay pornography is the reason people choose the gay lifestyle or what I call the deathstyle. If we got rid of that, homosexuality would be gone within a matter of months. This is one of only a few things I see eye-to-eye on with the Taliban.” What he actually said was, “While the Obama Department of Justice seems to favor pornographers over children and families, that will change under a Santorum administration.” The rest was fictional.
Mitt Romney so far has gotten off relatively easy except for some of his actual gaffes that have gone viral, as when he said that his wife, Ann, “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
One of the few attacks against Mr. Romney took the form of a group picture of him supposedly with his family displaying big letters that spelled “MONEY” instead of “ROMNEY.” Investigation revealed that it was a doctored version of a genuine AP photo of Mr. Romney with an actual Nevada family holding signs that spelled his name correctly.
More viral Internet smears can be expected as this election year goes on. They will come not only from political activists but also from the general public, which seems to suffer close to an addiction to humor and spoofs.
Fortunately, several organizations are watching the Internet to catch and expose fakes. Among them are FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and David Emery’s About.com, owned by the New York Times.
People can do their part in stemming this ugly tide by simply pressing “delete” instead of the “forward” key when they get a phony email.