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Published: Thursday, 7/3/2008

The secret life of lies

PEOPLE in Findlay are outraged over a Washington Post story suggesting that false rumors about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama are given credence by residents of the Flag City. They feel misrepresented, falsely generalized about, and, in general, as if kernels of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods are being told about them. They know these stories will take on a life of their own on the Internet and wonder how they can ever dispel the negative impression people will have of their home town.

Mr. Obama knows exactly how they feel.

The Internet is a wonderful tool. It makes a world of information available to anyone with a computer and a connection to the Web. Want to know how to fix a faucet or prepare the perfect baked Alaska? The answer is just a few keystrokes away. Need the population of Hong Kong or a map of the best route to Kennebunkport, Maine? It's right there at your fingertips.

But, kindly put, not all the information available on the Web is accurate. In fact, anyone can say just about anything they want on the Internet and, as a result, there's a whole lot of stuff roaring down the Information Superhighway that isn't true but has taken on a life of its own. So, it won't take long before the original Post story about how one group of longtime neighbors on one street in Findlay morphs in the repetition into many stories about an Ohio city filled with racists.

It won't matter that it isn't true; lots of people who won't have the chance to visit Findlay will assume it's true because, well, they read it on the Web. And it won't do the innocent people of Findlay any good to deny the stories because once a lie is out there and repeated enough times, people tend to believe it - even when presented with evidence of the truth.

Right-wing rumor mongers have become particularly adept at using the Web as a tool for political assassination. Just ask 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who was attacked so frequently and effectively that the term "swiftboating" has become synonymous with Internet smear campaigns. And John McCain may have lost the GOP primary in South Carolina in 2000 because of false rumors that he had fathered a mixed-race child.

Still, the attacks on Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain pale in comparison to what Mr. Obama has had to endure since he announced his candidacy 16 months ago.

Unlike Mr. Kerry, who too long ignored the lies, Mr. Obama has a Web site dedicated to dispelling false rumors about his background, faith, and patriotism. Yet, as the Post story suggests, there is a persistence to the falsehoods that defies logic.

Let it be said once again, therefore, that Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii, he attended a public school in Jakarta, Indonesia, for four years as a child; he is a Christian and was sworn in as senator on a Bible; he recites the Pledge of Allegiance when appropriate and wears a flag pin on occasion, and he is a family man with a long record of community service.

All reports to the contrary are false - just as false as the scurrilous rumor floating around the Web that Mr. McCain became a collaborator with his North Vietnamese captors while a POW and, rather than being tortured, was given special privileges such as a private nurse.

Mr. McCain is not a communist collaborator. Mr. Obama is not a gay Muslim racist. The people of Findlay are not narrow-minded bigots.

Any questions?

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