What has been the single most effective new media tool this campaign season?
Twitters from campaigns? A YouTube gotcha ad? Facebook groups? Campaign theme-song ringtones? Google "bombs"? MySpace forums? Specially designed campaign social networks? Widget heavy Web sites?
No, no, no, no and so on....
My suspicion is that it has been an old-fashioned email that lists outlandish and patently false charges which claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and much worse, insinuates that he is somehow a radical Islamic Manchurian Candidate.
The power of this communication is that despite a decade of moronic chain emails that have universally been deemed false, there is still a large segment of American society that believes something just because they read it and it came from a friend. There is a reason why the "Bill Gates will pay you to forward this" email or the the email tax meme have lasted as long as they have. I have highly educated relatives who still earnestly send me this stuff. Somehow, the same folks who look over a $21 restaurant bill for five minutes have never gotten appropriately skeptical about Big Claims whizzing around the 'Net. They believe things first and ask questions never.
I first became familiar with the Obama email because I have two different sets of relatives who sent my wife and dozens of family and friends the note around Thanksgiving. These are not hateful racists and/or bigots. But, they are sadly predisposed to believing that a man with the middle name of Hussein couldn't possibly worship in their church. Ross Perot believed it. I would hazard to guess that most everyone reading this post knows someone who has received the mail. Know anyone who watches Fox News?...
After I did research on it, I was surprised that there hadn't been more written on the real impact of the email and wondered what the Obama strategy was to counter it. Of course, soon after when a Clinton county chair in Iowa was caught sending the email, more attention was paid to it. More recently, when the email was sent out to thousands on a military network, it raised official eyebrows and reprimands.
But, apparently, the most significant front on chain mail turf battle has been with the Jewish community -- an obviously highly contested segment of the population in the primary. One Jewish pub said last week that "Obama staffers have struggled to contain the damage from numerous emails circulated among Jewish leaders that falsely claim Obama is a Muslim."
So much so, that Obama, himself, took the time to address it just before he took the stage with Senator Kennedy last week at American University. In a call with Jewish media, he said:
"There has been a constant and virulent scare campaign via the Internet that has particularly targeted the Jewish community," he said, calling that focus "interesting."
"It states that I’m a Muslim, that I was sworn into my Senate office on the Koran, and that I do not pledge allegiance. It is very important for everybody to know that it is fake. I never practiced Islam. I was raised by my secular mother. I have been a member of the Christian religion and an active Christian. I was sworn in with my hand on my family Bible and have said the Pledge of Allegiance since I was 3 years old."
The Obama campaign also fought fire with fire and unleashed a January email, Web, you name it, campaign against the smears. Here's Sarah Lai Striland's Wired report on the response. And, here is the Obama campaign "fact page" with all flavors of third-party support.
Perhaps most importantly, when I searched Google for "Obama Muslim" I got this paid ad from the campaign as the top result...
Too little, too late?
I have no idea if Obama will win. And, I suspect that if he did, I would have a good deal of trouble with many of his policies. However, you can't question how his method and approach to this campaign have rallied and excited millions of people who are sick and tired of the environment of hate, mistrust and polarization that allows a patently false and damaging email like the Obama-is-Muslim one to more than flourish. The irony is painful.
People predicted that this would be the year of the "YouTube candidate" and inventive videos like the "We are the World"-esque pro-Obama one below (that is blowing up the Internet today) would have the predominate new media impact. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad that a chain-email that could be debunked with 30-seconds of research is the Internet's top contribution to the campaign thus far.