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E-mail Hoaxes, ‘Forwards’ Fly Among Presidential Campaigns

Democratic and Republican presidential candidates alike have been targeted by recent e-mail hoaxes and what might be termed the “dirty forward.”

Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, as well as Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, have all been subjected to e-hammering ”in two cases over their religion.

An Associated Press story of Dec. 6 ”the same day former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivered his “Faith in America” speech ”referred to an e-mail that purported to be from Romney himself.

In it, “Romney” was asking Iowa voters to “join me, a born-Mormon, and a growing number of disenchanted Christians in believing the following tenets of the Mormon religion.”

Among the tenets it listed: “Mormon men can have multiple wives in heaven ”eternal polygamy,” and “God the father had sex with Mary to conceive Jesus, who is the half brother of Lucifer.”

One Romney rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has himself been the victim of some e-mail hijinks.

In October, an e-mail began circulating that Huckabee’s campaign chairman in Iowa was jumping ship ”and joining Romney.

“I regretfully announce after not meeting our fundraising goals in this last quarter, I have decided to leave the Huckabee campaign and join Mitt Romney,” the e-mail read, alleging to come from the keyboard of chairman Bob Vander Plaats.

It went on to say, “Mitt Romney is a man of true integrity with a strong commitment to faith and family.”

“I’m not leaving my guy any time,” Vander Plaats said of Huckabee while setting the record straight in a Des Moines Register story. “I don’t know where this came from, but I think they see that Huckabee is gaining huge momentum, and he’s becoming quite a threat to a lot of people.”

Turns out Vander Plaats was right: Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, now leads the Republican pack in Iowa. On the Democratic side, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has been e-targeted for a couple of years. (The Urban Legends Reference Pages have a page dedicated to rumors about Obama. The page includes an example e-mail about bogus claims regarding Obama that have been circulating since at least 2006.)

As e-mails have swirled around Romney and Mormonism, so have they encircled Obama and Islam ”despite the fact that Obama is a Christian and member of the United Church of Christ.

Just last week, an Iowa field coordinator for Hilary Clinton’s campaign abandoned her post after forwarding an e-mail focused on Obama and his devotion to Islam. An AP story says Judy Rose forwarded the e-mail to eight people.

A story from The Des Moines Register quoted part of the e-mail as saying: “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level ”through the President of the United States, one of their own!”

“There is no place in our campaign, or any campaign, for this kind of politics,” Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle said, according to the AP story. “A volunteer county coordinator made the mistake of forwarding an outrageous and offensive chain e-mail. This was wholly unauthorized and we were totally unaware of it.”

Back in June, an Iowa field director in the campaign of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) made headlines for forwarding an e-mail to Iowa Republicans that included criticisms of Mormonism. Similarly, Rudy Giuliani’s deputy e-campaign director got in trouble for referring a blogger to a story in The Salt Lake Tribune “linking Romney to an unofficial Mormon prophecy that a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would one day save the Constitution,” according to a Boston Globe story.

The problem of forwarding hoaxes and half-truths is that the forwarder typically hides behind a veil of innocence. He or she makes no claim to authorship, and may not even explicitly proclaim agreement with the contents of the message. On the surface, it’s just an action of “FYI” (“for your information”), which may turn out to have deeper roots and intentions on the part of the forwarder. Hence, the “dirty forward.”

“I’m just forwarding what this person said” becomes the defense, though it failed to succeed in the above-mentioned cases.

To date, none of the e-tricks cited above has had authorship or origination traced directly back to an opponent’s campaign. In this way, these hijinks are fundamentally different from, say, the “dirty tricks” campaign waged by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) in the 1972 presidential election. While the Internet obviously played no role in that era of political sabotage, the goal of distributing hurtful misinformation remains the same.

While the Internet ”with its e-mail hoax messages and forwards ”provides a new outlet for dirty tricks, it by no means has the corner on such.

After all, as a story in the Des Moines Register reports, Hilary Clinton’s campaign is setting up a “dirty tricks hotline” for voters to report unethical behavior ”after several Iowans reported telephone calls from pollsters that turned out to be Clinton bashing.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.