Dissecting the Palin Rumor Mill

In my new and unexpected role as the Pajamas Media answer to Hedda Hopper, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the rumors about Sarah Palin that have appeared in the weeks since John McCain announced her nomination. (The new list is up to 91 and still growing.) Its given me a whole new insight into rumors and how the press responds to them. It seems to be very predictable — and very artificial.


Let’s look at a recent one, #83. The rumor, as it was reported, was that Palin had “cut the Special Olympics funding in half.” Now, here are the facts (and thanks to Warren Throckmorton for digging this out):

  • The 2006 budget was $250,000.
  • The 2007 budget as passed by the Alaskan legislature was $650,000
  • After Palin used her line-item veto authority, the new budget was $275,000

So we see the facts of the story are that it was a “Beltway budget cut”: more money, but not as much as someone wanted. The facts aren’t as interesting as the history of the story, though. It appears to have started, in this case, with the New York Times, which casually says:

Democrats have pointed, sometimes correctly, sometimes erroneously, to items in the state budget for the disabled that Ms. Palin cut. According to state documents, she cut the state’s Special Olympics budget in half.

Step one: assert something in a way that doesn’t stand out.

Notice this isn’t a main point of the story.

The next mention, and the first one I find from Alaska, is from KTUU TV Anchorage on  September 14, which says:

While the Special Olympics did not want to make any comments about budget cuts, Channel 2 News looked into the governor’s funding of the program.

Records show Palin actually increased their funding by $25,000. However, that amount is only half of what the program asked for.

“This governor from the very start has a very clear record of her support for children with special needs,” said Palin’s campaign spokesperson Meghan Stapleton. “Since taking office she has nearly tripled funding for those with special needs in the public school system.”

The Department of Education in Early Development says funding for special needs and intensive needs has gone up $73 million since Palin took office.


So by the 14th, the story had already been debunked. Nonetheless, Think Progress covers the story on September 15, and in an update, links to the KTUU story, correcting the notion that a 10 percent increase is a cut. But right about the same time, there are hundreds of occurrences of the story that don’t link to the Think Progress story or to the New York Times story, much less the correction.

Okay, it could all be coincidental, or it could be a bunch of people who aren’t linking back to their sources. In any case, we see what seems to consistently be step two.

Step two: repeat the story, unsourced, across many sites.

On the 17th, Daily Kos comes out with “liberal talking points.” Olbermann reports it (not picking up the correction, of course).

The interesting question here is, well, how? What is the mechanism?

I’m a big believer in Heinlein’s Razor: “never ascribe to malice, that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” and its corollary, “believe simple malice before conspiracy.” The way these Palin rumors got around, however, has always had some peculiar aspects.

First, it seems to happen so fast: the same text gets posted in so many places, sometimes literally hundreds of them, nearly simultaneously. (Doug Ross has investigated one of these, with interesting results.)


Second, as we see with a lot of the “Palin cut the budget of X” stories, they seem to come out in a very regular fashion: the budget stories, in particular, appear about every three days. (Palin Rumor #91 came out yesterday: Palin cut funding to Catholic charities. The real story, first ferreted out by Warren Throckmorton, is that Palin “cut” funding by increasing it a mere six times, instead of the eleven times originally proposed.)

Third, these stories often directly touch on something that has just been noticed in the mainstream press: “Palin cut ‘special needs’ funding” came out shortly after she mentioned being an advocate for special needs children in her acceptance speech; “Catholic charities” came out after questions about Biden losing support among blue-collar Catholics made it appear that Palin might be attracting more Catholic voters.

A budget with hundreds of line-item vetoes or changes offers hundreds of opportunities for this kind of story: every line-item veto represents someone whose ox has just been gored. The correlation between the particular line-item and other political stories seems far more than just random.

Still, it’s possible to explain this without assuming there is some central controller — a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy — passing them around.


But Rusty Shackleford at the Jawa Report may have changed my mind.

Shackleford investigated a particular viral video that seemed to have very professional production values, and which was promoted via Democratic Underground and Daily Kos. In a posting (which has since been deleted, but for which Shackleford kept a copy) a Kos diarist says of exactly this video:

That brings me to the other group, [other group’s name]. This group is the actual action group–the one where the most damaging stories collected by folks at the VMP. It’s real simple. You log in or get an email alert, you copy and paste, and you email it to various folks–either friends and family or content-based websites like blogs and online news sources. [Emphasis mine.]

Now we see the mechanism. What about the source? That’s the point at which Shackleford’s study of this video becomes very interesting. By employing a lot of Web forensics, he builds up a chain of connections from the video to the public relations firm Winner & Associates. The firm is closely connected with Democratic politics, and less strongly with David Axelrod and by extension the Obama campaign.

Step three: it becomes a standard talking point.

I’m not naive. Spreading rumors about an opponent probably goes back to Attic Greece, and certainly goes back to the apocryphal pol who accused his opponent of “mastication” and his wife of being “a thespian.” At least, what this tells us is that the Obama campaign is running like every political campaign; at most, the apparent coordination shows that Obama’s campaign is doing it more efficiently.


What it does teach us, though, is to watch out for people reporting these rumors as fact. The old newspaper adage was “if your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” So here are some new ones — useful any time, but especially useful on these political rumors:

Any time you hear about a budget “cut,” check the previous year’s budget.

Consistently, every rumor about Palin cutting a budget has turned out to be an increase that was smaller than someone asked for.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

This applies to a lot of the rumors on both sides, frankly. “Obama is a secret Muslim.” “Palin was a member of a secessionist party.” “Obama wasn’t born in the USA.” “McCain wasn’t born in the USA.” This applies especially to stories that match your preconceptions.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

The bigger the surprise would be, the less likely it’s true.

Applying these to most all the Palin and Obama rumors would have saved a lot of pixels over the last two years.


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