The e-mail landed in Danielle Allen's queue one winter morning as she was studying in her office at the Institute for Advanced Study, the renowned haven for some of the nation's most brilliant minds. The missive began: "THIS DEFINITELY WARRANTS LOOKING INTO."
Laid out before Allen, a razor-sharp, 36-year-old political theorist, was what purported to be a biographical sketch of Barack Obama that has become one of the most effective -- and baseless -- Internet attacks of the 2008 presidential season. The anonymous chain e-mail makes the false claim that Obama is concealing a radical Islamic background. By the time it reached Allen on Jan. 11, 2008, it had spread with viral efficiency for more than a year.
During that time, polls show the number of voters who mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim rose -- from 8 percent to 13 percent between November 2007 and March 2008. And some cited this religious mis-affiliation when explaining their primary votes against him.
As the general-election campaign against Sen. John McCain has gotten underway, Obama's aides have made the smears a top target. They recently launched FightTheSmears.com to "aggressively push back with the truth," said Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor, and go viral with it. The Web site urges supporters to upload their address books and send e-mails to all of their friends. "
But long before this, Allen had been obsessing about the origins of her e-mail at the institute, which is most famous for having been the research home of Albert Einstein. Allen studies the way voters in a democracy gather their information and act on what they learn. She was familiar, of course, with the false rumors of a secret love child that helped sink McCain's White House bid in 2000, and the Swift boat attacks that did the same to Democrat John Kerry in 2004. But the Obama e-mail was on another plane: The use of the Internet made it possible to launch anonymous attacks that could reach millions of voters in weeks or even days.
As an Obama supporter -- she had met the senator while she worked as a dean at the University of Chicago -- it made her angry. And curious.
"I started thinking, 'How does one stop it?' "
Allen set her sights on dissecting the modern version of a whisper campaign, even though experts told her it would be impossible to trace the chain e-mail to its origin. Along the way, even as her hunt grew cold, she gained valuable insight into the way political information circulates, mutates and sometimes devastates in the digital age.How Rumors Are Born
Allen was ideally suited to embark on such a difficult hunt. She boasts two doctorates, one in classics from Cambridge University and the other in government from Harvard University, and won a $500,000 MacArthur "genius" award at the age of 29. Last year she joined the faculty of the institute, the only African American and one of a handful of women at the elite research center, where she works alongside groundbreaking physicists, mathematicians and social scientists. They don't have to teach, and they face no quotas on what they publish. Their only mandate is to work in the tradition of Einstein, wrestling with the most vexing problems in the universe.
While Allen was already an expert on the mechanics of politics, she fast began to learn the mechanics of the Internet. She discovered, for instance, that the recipe for launching a chain e-mail attack is not as simple as typing it up and hitting the send button to a long list of recipients. It takes effort to seed a chain mail that spreads as widely as the Obama missive, explained Jeff Bedser, president of the Internet Crimes Group, a company that helps corporations battle such broadsides. "Lighting that fire, getting something to have momentum, takes work," he said.
For this kind of chain-mail message to gain traction, it must be plausible, and it has to resonate, said Eric Dezenhall, a public relations specialist who once worked in the Reagan White House. Obama was vulnerable, Dezenhall said, because of his unusual name, his childhood in Indonesia, a foreign-born father, and his sudden arrival on the national stage without a fully fleshed-out biography. "All of these things gave it merchandising legs," Dezenhall said.
As Allen scrolled through the e-mail about Obama, she saw that the list of people who had received the missive consumed several full screens. Her first thought was to try to learn about the people behind the addresses. She traced a number to North Carolina Web sites about golf, but quickly hit a dead end. Then she had another thought: What if she took some of the unusual phrases from the text of the e-mail and Googled them?
Her eyes fell on this untrue sentence: "ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Kuran (Their equivalency to our Bible, but very different beliefs)."
The use of "their equivalency" and the spelling of "Kuran" instead of "Koran" made the sentence her point of departure.
That search showed that the first mention of the e-mail on the Internet had come more than a year earlier. A participant on the conservative Web site FreeRepublic.com posted a copy of the e-mail on Jan. 8, 2007, and added this line at the end: "Don't know who the original author is, but this email should be sent out to family and friends."
Allen discovered that theories about Obama's religious background had circulated for many years on the Internet. And that the man who takes credit for posting the first article to assert that the Illinois senator was a Muslim is Andy Martin.
Martin, a former political opponent of Obama's, is the publisher of an Internet newspaper who sends e-mails to his mailing list almost daily. He said in an interview that he first began questioning Obama's religious background after hearing his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In an Aug. 10, 2004, article, which he posted on Web sites and e-mailed to bloggers, he said that Obama had concealed his Muslim heritage. "I feel sad having to expose Barack Obama," Martin wrote in an accompanying press release, "but the man is a complete fraud. The truth is going to surprise, and disappoint, and outrage many people who were drawn to him. He has lied to the American people, and he has sought to misrepresent his own heritage." Martin's article did not suggest an association between Obama and radical Islam.
Martin was trying to launch a Senate bid against Obama when he says he first ran the Democrat's name by a contact in London. "They said he must be a Muslim. That was interesting to me because it was an angle that nobody had covered. We started looking. As a candidate you learn how to harness the Internet. You end up really learning how to work the street. I sort of picked this story up as a sideline." Martin said the primary basis for his belief was simple -- Obama's father was a Muslim. In a defamation lawsuit he filed against the New York Times and others several months ago, Martin says that Obama "eventually became a Christian" but that "as a matter of Islamic law began life as a Muslim" due to his father's religion.
The belief that Obama unavoidably inherited his religion was not uniquely Martin's -- as recently as May, it was proffered by Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, in a New York Times op-ed piece.
(After the Times was deluged with complaints, the paper's public editor, or ombudsman, later wrote that he had interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them disagreed with Luttwak's interpretation of Islamic law.)
Martin said he posted his 2004 article on Web sites, and distributed it by e-mail to authors of other popular blogs. But he said he had nothing to do with the chain e-mail that got Allen's attention. "I'm not trying to smear anybody," Martin said. "I just felt that was an underreported story."
But Martin said he understands how his initial article has taken on a life of its own. "There's nothing sinister here. I was thinking of running for Senate and was looking for a story to put some sizzle on the plate."
Other articles followed Martin's. Andrew Walden, the founder of an alternative Hawaiian newspaper with the motto "The untold story, the unspoken opinion, the other side," published an article with many of the same false biographical details from the e-mail in the weeks before Obama announced for president -- that he was "Raised in Muslim lands and educated in Muslim schools." He said in an interview that Obama's "alliance with Islam" was "all over the Internet," a source he often considers more trustworthy than the mainstream media.
Around the same time Ted Sampley, a North Carolina man who runs his own Web site, published a similar piece. In an interview, he denied authorship of the e-mail, but said he did not doubt that his article had provided source material. "That's the miracle of it," Sampley said. "Once it takes off, and people start posting it on Web sites, you really have no idea how far it goes or who reads it. You get a ripple effect. It's like a little pebble and then it gets bigger and bigger."
Poring over these early articles on the topic, Allen noticed what she thought was an important pattern. In each instance, someone had posted the articles on the Free Republic Web site, prompting a discussion involving the same handful of people, with several expressing a desire to spread the word about Obama's supposed faith.Keeper of the Obama File
Of the file folders that are spread in neat rows across Allen's desk, only one is bulging. It holds printouts of the reams of conversations about Obama's religion appearing on Free Republic. Since its start in 1996 by Jim Robinson of Fresno, Calif., the site has grown into a home for discussion of all types -- though it is particularly noted for spirited political discussions dominated by conservatives and libertarians. Freepers, as they're called, converse with a varying degree of transparency. Most remain anonymous.
Allen counted 23 freepers among those engaging in regular discussions about Obama's religion, and isolated a handful whom she began to suspect as having a role in the e-mail. Sifting through hundreds of postings, she began to piece together their identities. There was "Beckwith," whom she pegged as a veteran from Boston, old enough to vote for John F. Kennedy, in uniform by 1964, and host of a Web site that devotes considerable space to an "Obama file" that says the senator is "by birth, blood and training, a Muslim."
Allen found Beckwith discussing the matter in a Jan. 13 clip from a Web-based conservative radio show based in San Diego. In his thick Boston brogue, Beckwith told hosts Jeff Lynch and Mike Howard that Obama's "relationship to Islam is the big question. When one investigates the background of Obama's conversion, I can find no record of his baptism."
"Wow! Interesting!" Lynch gasped.
"This guy could easily be the Muslim Manchurian candidate," Howard said.
As Allen scanned his postings on Free Republic, she noticed that Beckwith repeated several phrases that also surface in the e-mail. Beckwith called Obama "an apostate Muslim, educated in madrassas." And when Beckwith later repudiated the "madrassa" claim -- after it was debunked by the mainstream media -- the term disappeared from subsequent versions of the chain e-mail. The Post located Beckwith in a Boston suburb, and he agreed to be interviewed under the condition that he not be identified because "I get a lot of really nutty stuff and some of it's threatening." The 69-year-old said he is retired as a software engineer and lives alone, but for brief stints babysitting for his grandchildren. He said he started a Web site in 2005 "because I don't play golf." His initial goal was to take swats at the liberal left. "Then this new guy comes along called Obama," he said.
Beckwith said he built a Web site that features hundreds of pages of material intended to undermine Obama. "If 20 percent of what's on my Web site is true, this guy is a clear and present danger," Beckwith said. (He later added, "I try very hard to be accurate.") But while Beckwith speaks with pride about his research -- much of which he credits to an unnamed "colleague" in Europe -- and to his extensive Obama files, he rejects outright the suggestion that he authored the chain e-mail. "I've never been involved with any e-mailings. Period," he said.
Another Free Republic participant who attracted Allen's interest went by the handle "Eva." She was one of the first to write on the site about Obama's religion -- in November 2006 she began repeating the phrase "Once a Muslim, always a Muslim," when discussing Obama.
With the help of Allen's biographical sketch, The Post located Eva in rural Washington state. She is Donna Shaw, 60, a teacher who said Obama's ability to captivate audiences made her deeply uneasy because his "tone and cadence" reminded her of the child revivalist con-man preacher Marjoe Gortner.
Shaw says she has done extensive online research about Obama but believes many of the initial sites that provided "proof" of his Muslim background have been removed from the Internet: "Everything about his Muslim background was readily available on the Web in 2004. But they were all cleared from the Internet before he ran for Senate." Shaw says she's always had a hankering for politics. Probably, she muses, that's because her father served for a spell as a New Jersey state assemblyman. He was driven out, she notes without a hint of irony, when he became the victim of a 1950s smear campaign that wrongly accused him of being a communist.
When asked about the Obama e-mail, she says evenly: "I've never seen the e-mail. I don't get any political e-mails. I have a good filter on that."Old Tactic, New Twist
The idea of unsubstantiated charges whispered through gossip trails has been a tried-and-true political technique since well before Machiavelli's time, Allen said. Traditionally, the best approach to combating them has been to "flush the charges out into the open."
That was easier when the rumors flew off a printing press, or when they appeared -- as with Swift boat attacks against Kerry -- in television ads paid for by a well-funded group of partisans. The attacks on Obama are different, Allen says. The level of anonymity, the technical efficiency, and above all the electoral impact of Internet-based smears all represent a new challenge.
"What I've come to realize is, the labor of generating an e-mail smear is divided and distributed amongst parties whose identities are secret even to each other," she says. A first group of people published articles that created the basis for the attack. A second group recirculated the claims from those articles without ever having been asked to do so. "No one coordinates the roles," Allen said. Instead the participants swim toward their goal like a school of fish -- moving on their own, but also in unison.
Obama's campaign, for better or worse, is writing the manual on combating this new asymmetrical guerrilla warfare. Obama has not shied away from the rumors -- he mentions them frequently. "Before I begin," he told a pro-Israel group this month, "I want to say that I know some provocative e-mails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. . . . They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president. And all I want to say is -- let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening."
Allen says the casual pushback and aggressive response plan could provide the model politicians will follow in the future. But she remains uncertain it will work.
"Citizens and political scientists must face the fact that the Internet has enabled a new form of political organization that is just as influential on local and national elections as unions and political action committees," she says. "This kind of misinformation campaign short-circuits judgment. It also aggressively disregards the fundamental principle of free societies that one be able to debate one's accusers."
For proof of this, Allen says, she need look no further than her e-mail inbox. After months of research, a new chain-mail smear against Obama arrived with an innocuous subject line: "Food for thought."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.