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Anatomy of a Wishful Viral Rumor

The 2012 campaign isn’t the first to be marked by rumors and distortions. But it’s already setting new land-speed records for the time it takes a tossed-off comment or flat-out falsehood to develop into a “fact” accepted by half the political world. The “report” that Obama would be traveling to Paris to hold a European fundraiser on the Fourth of July was just the latest example of partisan lying. 

Every time it happens, supporters of the rumor’s target bemoan the gullibility of their partisan counterparts. How could anyone think Obama was born in Kenya?! Does anyone really believe Romney doesn’t know what a doughnut is?!

The reason distorted or fabricated tales about political candidates spread so quickly, of course, is because people want to believe the very worst about their opponents. They also want to believe the very best about their own candidates. That appears to be why a lie about Obama became a viral sensation among his own supporters this year.

The lie is a quote, attributed to Obama: 

No, you can’t deny women their basic rights and pretend it’s about your “religious freedom.” If you don’t like birth control, don’t use it. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.

I ran across this a few weeks ago when a Facebook friend approvingly posted one of several images that have been created with this quote and are circling the internet. Immediately, I had two thoughts: 1) Obama can be a straight-talker—recently referring to insurance companies who “jack up” rates—but that doesn’t sound like something he’d say; and 2) if he did say this, wouldn’t it have dominated news coverage for several days, if not weeks?

I did some digging to figure out how this fake Obama quote became a liberal meme with more than 127,000 hits on Google. It goes something like this:

February 10, 2012. Obama appears in the White House press room to announce some proposed changes to the HHS mandate that requires employer-based insurance to include free coverage of contraception after fielding complaints from a diverse group of religious individuals who felt the exception for “religious employers” was too narrow. 

February 15, 2012. On a forum discussing Rick Santorum at Topix, someone posts this observation: “You can’t deny women their basic rights and pretend it’s about your ‘religious freedom’. If you don’t like birth control, don’t use it. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your beliefs.”

February 16, 2012. The above statement, now attributed to Obama and plastered over an image of Obama forcefully making a point, is posted on a tumblr called Atheist Stardust. It’s unclear if this was the first site to link Obama with the quote about religious freedom, but the post was either “liked” or re-blogged by more than 28,000 other sites, which makes it a likely suspect.

From there, the image and quote took off, becoming particularly popular with Pinterest and Tumblr users. While it was eventually picked up some conservative sites as evidence of Obama’s “war on religion,” the vast majority of those posting the quote seem to be liberals who express relief and pride at Obama’s supposed willingness to stick it to religious conservatives.

The quote has taken on second, third, fourth lives since the winter, getting re-circulated on Facebook in May and again in June. And it will no doubt continue to live on. Because although some of those who initially helped to spread the word have since posted disclaimers warning readers that they can’t verify the quote, tens of thousands more have left their posts intact.

And Obama supporters will continue to pass around the quote because many of them want to believe it is real, and want to believe that Obama not only shares their views about conservative Catholics but is willing to say so in very blunt terms. That desire is natural and understandable, but I wish people would employ a little critical thinking as they follow the campaign. Lying about your own candidate isn’t any better than lying about his opponent.