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Where the Hoaxes Live: the overlapping Geography of Obama Urban Legends

Google Correlate is a new research tool used to find out where in the United States the entry of certain search terms is concentrated, and which search terms’ levels of popularity are correlated with one another across the 50 states. The first idea is pretty straightforward: where are people more or less likely to be entering a search term? In other words, where are the cultural ideas of America located? The second idea is less intuitive: which terms are searched for more often in the same sets of states, and less often in the same sets of states too? In other words, what ideas are culturally aligned in the same places?

For a little while now, I’ve been interested in the contentions (to use a charitable term), urban myths and legends (to use a descriptive term) and hoaxes (to use a judgmental term) surrounding President Barack Obama. Setting aside the content of his actual policies for a moment, his presidency has provoked a number of emotionally-charged reactions, each of which is centered around a story about the covert actions of President Obama or his alleged fellow travelers. These have spread widely around the internet and persist despite fact checking. I decided to use Google Correlate to answer two questions:

1. Is it possible to use information about geographic clustering to find new examples of urban legends and hoaxes I’ve never heard of before?
2. Are most of the major urban legends and hoaxes regarding Barack Obama prevalent in the same set of states, or are they divided somehow?

To answer these questions, I generated a snowball sample starting with a particular political hoax message and spreading out to include others. The hoax I started with is a popular but false claim that a bill called HB 1388 has just been passed and signed into law by Barack Obama to give Hamas 20 billion and collect Hamas militants for resettlement in communities of the United States. Messages spreading the untrue claim are now in their third year of making the rounds and show no signs of dying out. Using the Google Correlate service, I generated a list of other search terms which are popular in the same states that the search “HB 1388” are popular (and which are unpopular in the same states that the search “HB 1388” is unpopular), using a correlation of at least +0.85 as a cutoff for inclusion on the list. From that list I identified search terms associated with other political hoaxes and urban legends, and using those terms made new lists of search terms fitting similar geographic profiles. I continued the process until there were no new hoaxes or urban legends listed, generating a set of 11 hoaxes and urban legends.

The following sociogram shows which hoax/urban legend search terms were generated from the snowball sample starting with “HB 1388,” and which pairs of terms are strongly correlated in search strength on a state-by-state basis:

Geographic Connections between Urban Myths in Politics: state-by-state correlation of various search terms identified through a snowball sample beginning with "HB 1388," completed June 18 2011

The included terms are:

  • “hb 1388,” the starting point of the snowball sample
  • “Judge David Carter,” referring to the false claim that the federal district court judge had required Barack Obama to produce evidence of his citizenship. Judge Carter actually dismissed the lawsuit making that demand.
  • “americans for freedom of information,” referring to a fake AP article purporting to announce the release of proof that Barack Obama is really named “Barry Soetoro” and applied for admission to Occidental College as an Indonesian citizen.
  • “a license required for your home,” referring to the false claim that cap-and-trade legislation would require homeowners to gain a license showing compliance with energy standards before they could sell their home. Calling it a “Surprise from Obama” is a nice touch, considering that the story’s about a congressional bill and Barack Obama is President, not a legislator. Besides, the cap and trade approach was developed through a collaboration of conservative economists and Republicans. On top of all that, cap-and-trade legislation hasn’t been passed and has been dropped from the congressional agenda.
  • “Obama trial,” referring to a 2010 event held by a conservative pastor at his church during which about 75 got together, had lunch, “ruled” that President Obama was guilty of not being a citizen of the United States, then forwarded the ruling to legal authorities for enforcement. Despite the pastor’s assertion that his event had force of law because the police didn’t shut it down, it was just a show.
  • “Dr. Sam Vaknin,” referring to a chain e-mail signed “Dr. Sam Vaknin” asserting that Barack Obama is a narcissist. A fact check reveals that Vaknin is not a mental health professional, got his PhD from a diploma mill, and at any rate did not write the article. This doesn’t mean that Barack Obama isn’t a narcissist, but it does mean that the article is a hoax.
  • “flight 297 atlanta to houston,” referring to a story the author now admits is fabricated in which 11 Muslim men in “full attire” boarded an airplane in a terrorist dry run, acted shifty, refused to follow the rules, screamed “shut up infidel dog!” at a flight attendant and would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for a pair of stalwart Texans who stood up to the Muslims (and ineffectual Homeland Security agents), rallied the passengers and the crew, and refused to go along with the terrorist plot.
  • “General Bill Ginn,” a search term referring to an urban legend that… get this… Barack Obama, being interviewed by General Bill Ginn on Meet the Press, explained why he doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin: “I don’t want to be perceived as taking sides…. And the anthem itself conveys a war-like message. You know, the bombs bursting in air and all…. I like the song ‘I’d like to Teach the World to Sing.’ If that were our anthem, then I might salute it.” It’s a silly quote, it’s a ridiculous notion that generals interview politicians on Meet the Press, and it’s utter hogwash.
  • “fema concentration camps,” an entry showing that an urban legend can have basis in fact. As H.R. 645 in the House and S. 3476 in the Senate, a bill called the National Emergency Centers Establishment Act proposed to the 111th Congress that “the Secretary of Homeland Security shall establish not fewer than 6 national emergency centers on military installations” for humanitarian purposes but also, disturbingly, “to meet other appropriate needs, as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security.” It should be noted, however, that neither H.R. 645 nor S. 3476 were passed out of committee, much less passed by the Congress or signed into law in the 111th Congress. The National Emergency Centers Establishment Act has not even been introduced before the 112th Congress.
  • “muslim stamp,” referring to the incorrect claim that Barack Obama ordered the Postal Service to start issuing stamps for the Muslim holiday of Eid.
  • “dhimmitude,” referring to the not altogether incorrect notion that some Muslims may gain an exemption from requirements to gain health care coverage… which is part of a general exemption in recently passed health care reform legislation (so-called “ObamaCare”) for people opposed to participation in insurance on religious grounds

Was Google Correlate a good way to find out about hoaxes and urban legends related to Barack Obama? Definitely. Of the 11 Obama hoaxes or urban legends Google Correlate pointed me to, I’d never heard a word about 8.

Are the Obama hoaxes and urban legends popular in similar sets of states? The set of 11 identified here appear to be. Between these 11 hoaxes and urban legends there are 55 relationships, 55 opportunities for a correlation of at least +0.85 between the two to appear. In 32 out of the 55 pairs, a correlation this strong did appear. In 8 out of the 55 pairs, the correlation reached a level of at least +0.90. What are these states? You can find out for yourself by Google Correlate query, or you can take my word for it: they’re the same states whose electoral votes went to John McCain in the 2008 election.

But the appearance of this dense cultural web of hoaxes and myths, all concentrated in the McCain states, is at least partially rigged, an product of the snowball sample itself. After all, the hoaxes and myths were found because searches for them across the 50 states occurred with a pattern highly correlated to the pattern of “HB 1388” searches; it shouldn’t be too surprising that the geographic pattern of the hoaxes and myths are correlated with one another, too.

The bigger question is, are there hoaxes and urban legends surrounding Barack Obama that weren’t dredged up by Google Correlate, ones that aren’t popular or unpopular in the same sets of states? One urban legend is conspicuous in its absence: the claim that Barack Obama is somehow secretly a Muslim. The geographic distribution of that claim isn’t strongly correlated with searches for “HB 1388” or any of the other 10 hoaxes described above. Google searches asking “is Obama a Muslim” are concentrated in the Bible Belt, and are correlated with a different series of myths and legends that are religious in theme: false claims that Barack Obama had canceled the National Day of Prayer, questions regarding Obama’s identity as the Anti-Christ, searches for signs of The End and people looking for descriptions of dinosaurs in the Bible. As the sociogram below shows, these are correlated with one another to a significant extent; none of them are strongly correlated with searches for “HB 1388”:

Sociogram showing geographic connections between religious myths in politics, as generated through Google Correlate, all with a correlation of at least +0.90

Are there other hoaxes, urban legends or myths regarding Barack Obama that you know of but that don’t appear on either of these two lists, that could be associated with another geographic cluster of anti-Obama culture?

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