- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) | With just days to go before the election, gossip, hearsay, innuendo and smears are flying through the Internet as gadflies and rumormongers hope to sway voters before they head to the polls.

“It’s a lot of mud being slung. It’s understandable, but I think it’s still kind of sad,” said Nick DiFonzo, a psychologist and rumor scholar at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York.

Candidates and their campaigns are circulating negative bits of information in mainstream venues, raising questions about their opponents in speeches and dropping sour hints in their advertisements. But only on the Internet can entirely false rumors persist, stories told without backup, persistently bouncing from one blog to another.

Some have been out there for years, despite repeated rebuttals from the campaigns. Others surfaced only this past week. They range from the truly silly (Weekly World News Web site, in all-caps: “October surprise: Alien endorses McCain!”) to bloggers who report results even though votes have yet to be counted.

Most voters say they have already made their decisions about who they want to have as their next president. So the Internet rumors are targeted at the shrinking pool of undecided voters who are still waiting, wondering and potentially still gathering information.

“The online rumors can affect their last-minute decisions,” said Anthony Pratkanis, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who researches propaganda and social influence.

Here’s a chance to vet the Net:

The Rumor: A commenter on the Daily Kos Web site, among others, has said Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s son Trig, born in April, was actually born to her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol.

The Facts: Unsubstantiated. After Mr. McCain tapped Mrs. Palin as his running mate, bloggers accused Mrs. Palin of faking a pregnancy to cover up for her daughter. As proof, bloggers said that Mrs. Palin hadn’t appeared pregnant before Trig was born and that she supposedly traveled from Texas to Alaska while in labor. The campaign rebutted the rumors by announcing that Bristol is now pregnant, which would make it nearly impossible for Trig to be Bristol’s baby. Other photos of Mrs. Palin in February and March show her quite visibly pregnant.

The Rumor: 1960s radical William Ayers wrote Mr. Obama’s autobiography “Dreams From My Father.”

The Facts: Unsubstantiated. Mr. Obama says the two didn’t meet until 1995. The book was published in 1995, which means most of it would have been written in 1994. Blogger Jack Cashill has been floating this rumor at the World Net Daily Web site, hinting that the book’s “fierce, succinct and tightly coiled social analysis” was closer to Mr. Ayers’ style than Mr. Obama’s. “Utter hogwash,” Obama organizers said.

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