As the presence of websites like The Debunker’s Guide to Obama Conspiracy Theories makes clear, the Internet is a breeding ground for polemical hyperbole directed against the 44th President of the United States. Sometimes this takes the form of literal conspiracy theories, such as the claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim or wasn’t born in this country; sometimes it takes the form of overreactions to non-issues, like the brouhaha earlier this week over Obama treating his wife to an expensive Hawaiian dinner during a private date.
The Internet can be invaluable as a tool for cultivating intelligent debate, but at the same time, like any public resource, it is easy to fall prey to some of its more irrational and unsavory elements. The most potent weapon for being factually grounded is, of course, to place the numerous anti-Obama assertions in a proper larger context. Images and ideas that can be manipulated (intentionally or otherwise) to give one impression online may actually mean something else entirely when all of the relevant information has been provided.
This has been particularly true of the anti-Obama rhetoric, and it is the responsibility of all Internet users to be fully informed before disseminating popular charges. To illustrate, here are six of the most egregious examples of ridiculous things the Internet has gotten upset with Obama for.
1) Claiming shenanigans at Nelson Mandela’s funeral
We can start with the string of funeral selfies that Obama was seen to have taken during the funeral of South African leader and hero Nelson Mandela. The president received harsh criticism from the likes of ABC News, which compared the president and his cohorts (including British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt) to “a bunch of teenagers,” to the New York Post, which arranged the pictures to make it seem as if First Lady Michelle Obama was upset at her husband for flirting with the Danish head of state (a perception later revealed to be untrue).
This is a great example of how the Internet can swap perception for reality in dangerous ways. Displayed on a computer screen, the image of the president emitting a toothy grin during the funeral of a head of state seems inappropriate, even gauche (to say nothing of the sequence of pictures showing him talking to the Danish prime minister). At the same time, Nelson Mandela’s funeral was deliberately given a festive atmosphere as consistent with the mores of South African culture. This detail, though perhaps too subtle to be readily apparent in news bytes and talking points, is critical when assessing whether our politicians performed well in diplomatic situations.
2) Latte salute-gate
“President Barack Obama is coming under criticism for offering a salute with a coffee cup in his raised hand,” reported the Huffington Post last September. “#LatteSalute, as the gesture is being called on Twitter, was captured in a White House Instagram video recorded when he stepped off Marine One in New York City on his way to the United Nations.” The National Republican Congressional Committee captured the gist of the criticism best when it referred to the incident as possibly “the most absurd video of President Obama we’ve ever seen.”
As with the funeral selfie, this is a situation where more background information clears up the potential controversy stemming from a single image or set of images. For one thing, military regulations don’t require salutes “when the senior or the subordinate is wearing civilian clothes,” thus negating the idea that Obama’s conduct was somehow unprofessional. Perhaps just as important, Obama was clearly acting casually because he was in a rush, rather than out of any deliberate desire to communicate disrespect.
3) Stirring up controversy over the content of a generic back-to-school speech
Presidents have been delivering back-to-school speeches since at least the days of George H. W. Bush, but this didn’t stop conservative parents from harshly protesting when Obama announced he was delivering a back-to-school address to America’s public school students in September 2009. Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer accused Obama of trying to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda,” conservative talk show host Tammy Bruce suggested parents have their children skip school on the day of his speech to avoid “that shady lawyer from Chicago,” and right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin claimed the speech had a “heavy activist bent.”
Of course, it turned out that all of this storm and fury was over an address that was as platitudinous a “stay in school” lecture as any that has been benignly imparted to American youth. Indeed, for all of the hysteria prompted by the announcement that Obama would be delivering this speech, there was never any indication that it would contain socialist (or for that matter Democratic partisan) propaganda. To those who believe Obama is a secret socialist, however, the prospect of him directly indoctrinating American children was so potent that even the text of the speech in question (which was released in advance) couldn’t abate their fears. Considering that there are potentially legitimate criticisms of Obama’s education policy, the reaction to this innocuous speech becomes all the more shameful in retrospect.
4) Insisting he’s a secret Muslim
This hoary rumor has taken many forms. From claiming that Obama was raised in a madrassa to purporting to have found a secret Islamic message on his wedding band, a large faction of Americans seem absolutely convinced that the president is actually a Muslim. At one point, a 2010 national survey from the Pew Research Center found that 18 percent believed Obama was a Muslim, compared to the 34 percent who believed he was a Christian, and the 43 percent who didn’t know his religious beliefs (they’re Protestant).
“The all-too-familiar scent of plain, old-fashioned racism hovers over the affair,” wrote Ramzi Kassem of the New York Daily News, “To understand why the myth of Obama’s Muslim identity not only persists, but grows, one must view it as commentary on his perceived ‘otherness.’… For those who continue to feel estranged from a President who is not white, labeling Obama as Muslim is the sole available substitute for racial epithets that are no longer tolerated.”
Of course, even if Obama was a Muslim, that would not be a relevant criticism, but the deeper issue here is how the Internet used a superficial image as a substitute for a deeper argument. Because Muslims appear “exotic” in the American paradigm, it has been very easy for online pundits and commenters to assume that our first black president (and one with an unusual name to boot) is somehow a secret follower of the Islamic faith. The fact that this relies on not one but two forms of bigotry just makes the dust-up doubly pernicious.
5) Believing Obama was born in Kenya instead of the United States.
You knew birtherism was going to have to appear here. Even before the president convinced the state government of Hawaii to release the official copy of his original long-form birth certificate (a special case had to be made for him because this is against local policy there), it was never rational to believe Obama had been born anywhere other than in Honolulu, Hawaii. Not only did two independent newspapers from the area report his birth at the time (the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star Bulletin), but there is no sound reason to believe that a Kenyan graduate student would have had reason to travel 21,458 miles (roundtrip) from Hawaii to Kenya with the white teenager he had impregnated out of wedlock so their baby could be born in that country even though he subsequently spent the first six years of his childhood (and then the final eight) in Hawaii. Of course, as with the rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim, the real motive behind birtherism has always been racism rather than reason.
A study conducted by Eric Hehman of the University of Delaware in the March Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that, as with the claims that Obama is a secret Muslim, the popularity of this particular conspiracy theory online is rooted in the impulse to express racist ideas without appearing explicitly bigoted. “Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure,” the study concluded. “As a consequence, whites’ prejudice is more likely to be expressed in discriminatory responses when these actions can be justified by other factors.”
This was why white people tended to view Obama as “less American,” a view that is obviously shared to an even more disproportionate degree by birthers. There is also, as James Carroll probably put it in the Boston Globe, “the perceived offense not just of blackness, but of miscegenation.” By insisting that a black president born of a Kenyan father and a WASP mother must be somehow inherently un-American, birthers are protesting “the biological fact of Obama’s existence, not the bureaucratic fact of government records.”
Because the Internet is such a powerful tool for reinforcing images regardless of the facts, it makes sense that such birtherism would proliferate online.
6) Fearing death panels in his health care reform bill
Aside from being the first woman to appear on a Republican national ticket, Sarah Palin’s greatest legacy may very well be her invention of one of the greatest political calumnies of the Obama era—namely, the idea that the president had created “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act. “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,” Palin posted on Facebook in August 2009.
By the end of the year, PolitiFact reported two independent polls showed that roughly 30 percent of Americans believed the death panels were real. By 2013, Forbes contributor Peter Ubel wrote that the death panel was persisting in part “because the law calls for the establishment of a 15 person committee—the independent payment advisory board (or IPAB)—which is given the job of recommending cost-saving measures to the Secretary of Health and Human Services if Medicare expenses rise too quickly.” The charge about death panels continues to pop up among conservative talking points, re-appearing as recently as last September.
It’s appropriate to close this article with the death panel smear because, while the other examples listed may play on media sensationalism or latent racism, this one actually attempted to alter a landmark social and economic policy—Obama’s famous Affordable Care Act—that has already succeeded and established itself as part of the fabric of American life.
As FactCheck.org explained at the time, the notion that death panels existed was a misconstruing of a legislative provisions that covers end-of-life medical consultations by Medicare. Section 1233 of H.R. 3200 “would require Medicare to pay for some end-of-life planning counseling sessions with a health care practitioner,” a modification of Section 1861(s)2 of the Social Security Act which defines what services Medicare will pay for. This is very different from requiring patients to receive end-of-life counseling sessions or, for that matter, determining what the outcomes of those sessions would be; it’s sole imperative is to subsidize the costs for those unable to afford them on their own.
As with the other absurdities mentioned here, this one became popular because it played into powerful imagery. Palin herself drew on some of those themes by using her child’s Down Syndrome, and the image of a dystopian panel that condemned her baby to death for his disability, as an example of the dangers of the bill.
Even without that jarring prospect, however, there is also the fact that the Affordable Care Act has been incredibly controversial even before it was fully formulated. Because many of Obama’s critics assumed the worst of his attempts to pass health care reform, any conspiracy theory that drew on Stalinist tropes was bound to gain currency online. Unfortunately, while it’s fine to laugh at the silliness of some of the trumped up scandals constructed by Obama’s opponents, the situation becomes much less humorous when it threatens to touch measures that can help improve people’s lives, as the provision in question from ACA will manage to do.
While Obama should be subjected to the same criticism as every other American president, there is a difference between criticisms that are rooted in a sound knowledge base and those that are based on racism or polemical embellishment. Because it is such a powerful tool for validating preconceptions, the Internet has played a major role in disseminating anti-Obama controversies such as the ones listed in this article. Hopefully, as its evolves and matures as a medium, these kinds of arguments will fade away and be replaced by more thoughtful alternatives.