Liberal reporter Chris Hayes, a journeyman of the weirder crannies of the political world, has a long and deeply reported piece on an inscrutable topic: Where do political chain e-mails come from? Specifically, where do right-wing or anti-Democrat chain e-mails come from? The answer: Some from smart political hacks, some from crazy people, some are just untrackable.
"A lot of the chain letters that were accusing Al Gore of things in 2000 were recycled in 2004 and changed to Kerry," says John Ratliff, who runs a site called BreakTheChain.org, which, like Snopes, devotes itself to debunking chain e-mails. One e-mail falsely described a Senate committee hearing in the 1980s where Oliver North offered an impassioned Cassandra-like warning about the threat of Osama bin Laden, only to be dismissed by a condescending Democratic senator. Originally it was Al Gore who played the role of the senator, but by 2004 it had changed to John Kerry. "You just plug in your political front-runner du jour," Ratliff says.
Even if many of the tropes were consistent, the tenor of the e-mails grew more aggressive between 2000 and 2004. "It got really nasty," says Ratliff. "You started seeing things reported as real news that, if you looked into it, you realized was opinion or supposition or someone trying to discredit another candidate through character assassination. You saw a lot of chain letters that purported to be from members of the Swift Boat group or firsthand accounts of people who supposedly had experience with Kerry in Vietnam. A lot of them didn't check out."
The big hoax of election 2008, as previously reported by the Politico's Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin, is that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Hayes encounters a phone canvasser who hears voters tell him they "heard this" multiple times a day… I hear it basically every time I travel. And the people who think Obama is a Manchurian Islamofascist don't also think Mitt Romney has multiple wives or John McCain has an out-of-wedlock baby. More than that, they don't even know (I usually ask) that Rudy Giuliani is in his third marriage and his first was to his second cousin. In other words, e-mail slanders on the right spread faster than truths from the mainstream or liberal media.
Hayes also has a fun encounter with Andy Martin, a deranged Illinois lawyer (whom I met in 2004) and perpetual ballot gadfly who should force people who say things like "Ron Paul is crazy!" to recalibrate their concepts of "crazy."