Sunday, December 22, 2013

After Birthers

I launched this blog five years ago, in December 2008, as part of what was then an independent effort to debunk Birtherism before it had a chance to gain a foothold, like 9/11 Trutherism.  And in January 2009, I thought that job was mostly done, and I moved on.  Then five months later, in June 2009, I came back, prompted in large part by statements made by Shepard Smith about rumors and lies that were still cluttering his inbox.

Now here I am, looking back on five YEARS of blogging about Birthers, and realizing that it's time to move on.

I gave a podcast interview last year, just before the 2012 election, where I talked about what the future of Birtherism might be during a second Obama term.  I predicted that it wouldn't die, and indeed it hasn't.  But Birtherism has proven to be far more impotent in this past year than I'd anticipated.  WorldNetDaily gave up regular Birther coverage even before the election.  Orly Taitz is the last litigant still fighting and failing in the courtroom.  The Cold Case Posse continues to occasionally hype itself on a couple of fringe podcasts, but even it hasn't done anything original in ages.  As I've never been engrossed in simply rehashing old arguments, the lack of new material leaves little to investigate and address, and I have no interest in feeding the egos of the few remaining Birthers who keep trying to attract a spotlight.  It's no accident that this blog has been so quiet for the past year.  Patrick McKinnon brought his Birther blogging to a close back in August for similar reasons.

In short, Birtherism, in its current state, is boring.  And in many ways, that's a good thing.  A stagnant conspiracy theory is not a growing conspiracy theory, after all.

This doesn't mean I'm giving up on Birtherism specifically, or on skepticism generally.  I still plan to write a book about the Birthers, though the nature of the project has evolved considerably (and, I believe, for the better).  If I have a story worth writing online, I might just ask to guest-publish it over at Doctor Conspiracy's site; he's always gotten more hits than me anyways.  This blog itself won't be going anywhere either; I just won't be updating it anymore.

And thus, this now seems like the time to pull back the curtain and talk about some of the things I've done online in the last five years that weren't part of this blog, and which I didn't talk about at the time.

First, way back in January 2009, I wrote about WND's bogus Obama investigation petition, and how susceptible it was to fake signatures.  In April 2010, WND bragged about the petition crossing the half-million signature mark.

Who was that 500,000th signee?  It was me.  Indeed, to prove how utterly worthless this petition was, I signed it 216 times in a 20 minute period, leading up to the big symbolic number.  All 216 entries had the exact same obviously-fake email address (a@a.com), the exact same obviously-fake surname (500K), and the first names were simply integers starting with "1" and counting upwards from there.

You have to register an account to post a comment at WND.com, but not to sign a petition.  This shows why; they simply don't care about the veracity of the signatures on their petitions.  In bragging about hitting the half-million mark, they'd have instantly spotted the hundreds of obviously-fake names I've submitted.  It was unmistakeable, but they didn't care.  All they care about is the fake number they can tout.

Second, there was another limited-purpose blog that I set up in 2010:  Ulsterman's Untruths.  For a brief moment, Ulsterman was the sort of pundit who could only ever exist on the internet; an anonymous muckraker claiming to get inside information from other anonymous informants.  And I demonstrated that before he started his "Insider" schtick, he had a habit of just fabricating fictional stories.  It's hard to say how many people ever actually took Ulsterman seriously, but even though he continues to publish at his own website, he's just internet background noise at this point.  This little project of mine had the notoriety of being cited by Media Matters.

Third, back before it was behind a paywall, I wrote and submitted four articles that were published by the Birther website The Post & Email.  Three of these were joke articles, designed to test the level of scrutiny that the website's editor would put on submissions from unknown contributors.  How ridiculous could I get in making anti-Obama claims before the site would balk?

The answer:  I never reached that point, because it published all three insane articles I offered up.  The first claimed that college-age Obama had been hand-picked for the Presidency through connections with Bohemian Grove; it didn't matter to the website that I manufactured this connection out of thin air, or that Occidental College is nowhere near Occidental, California, where Bohemian Grove is located.  Naturally, it didn't matter either that 'Bohemian Grove' has roughly the same cache among conspiracy theory proponents as 'Trilateral Commission' or 'The Illuminati.'

The second article claimed that Malcolm X was both Obama's biological father AND his illegitimate great-uncle.  I fabricated a story about Obama's great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham being a serial philanderer, and that he'd fathered both Stanley Armour Dunham and Malcolm X (who in turn impregnated Ann).  But even this tale of interracial and intergenerational incest didn't make the site bat an eye.

The third article was, at first blush, a general editorial about Obama.  It talked about his false face and the monster beneath, about his DNA and his true nature.  And in the midst of this, every single hyperlink in the article pointed to some external webpage that claimed Barack Obama is secretly an alien reptilian.  Hence the references to his "forked tongue" and his "fake shell."  Even some of the commenters started to balk at this one, but the Post & Email stood firm by its decision to publish an article claiming Obama is a shapeshifting alien.  Amazingly, while the Post & Email appears to have since removed the first two articles (whether intentionally or accidentally), the reptilian article is still there today, almost three years later.

The fourth article wasn't a joke; it was a control.  I wrote an article essentially taking the Birther point-of-view, and alleging that Birther Andy Martin wasn't eligible to run for President (as his father was a non-naturalized immigrant).  While I didn't believe in the conclusion, this was the only article I submitted to the Post & Email where all the information cited was both true and credible.  And yet this was the only one where the editor demanded that substantive changes be made to the article, because she wasn't comfortable with the allegations being made.

I was behind one other brief hoax in Birtherism in 2010, that of office supply store worker Chanise Foxx.  A Birther at FreeRepublic had created the name and story in a post, and I borrowed it and treated it as true in a comment at CitizenWells.  When the FreeRepublic server coincidentally went down the next morning, CitizenWells fell for it hard, and the Birthersphere briefly went into a tizzy.  It didn't last long, but the chaos was fun to watch while it lasted.  (As an added bonus, my comment at CW linked to the personal website of the FreeRepublic poster who penned the story, and who was a highly prolific Birther in his own right.  The fallout naturally hurt his online reputation, and he vanished from FR a few months later.)

I also recently started another blog that isn't intended for regular posts, but will instead be updated only as necessary:  Jerome Corsi: America's Worst Journalist.  Other sites regularly document WND's journalistic failings, but as an author who can still occasionally fib his way onto the bestseller charts, I wanted there to be a Google-friendly, one-stop destination for the worst of Corsi's offenses.  It's not to merely report his latest bit of rumormongering or smear attack, but rather to document when he dives into Stephen Glass/Jayson Blair levels of dishonesty that would get a reporter fired from any reputable news outfit.

Even though I never would have predicted that I would have spent nearly as much time and trouble as I did on the Birthers, I'm nonetheless proud of a lot of the work I did on this blog.  I exposed the original Birther document expert, Ron Polarik, as a fraud, and while the Birthers long ago left him behind, it's been sad to see him fall further into fringe absurdities.  I destroyed any hint of credibility of the DVD Dreams From My Real Father, which was the one Birther-friendly project outside of WND to have a measurable budget; my work even got cited (indirectly) by the President's own campaign site.  I caught Birther icons RaceBannon and Larry Martin in lies they were telling about their own personal experiences.  And I documented the play-by-play origins of the Birther rumor that started it all.

But there are other projects to move on to.  Let me thus close out with a piece of advice:  take the lessons you've learned about critical thinking in watching Birtherism, and try not only to impart them to others, but to also apply them to other parts of your life.  You may not believe something as overtly silly and publicly debunked as Birtherism, but you may well hold some incorrect beliefs simply out of inertia, because you've never stopped to truly think critically about them.  Remember that skepticism isn't a belief system; it's a process.

To that end, I suggest that if you've been interested in the Birther saga, then you should see what else the skeptical movement has for you.  Podcasts like Skeptoid, The Reality Check and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe provide weekly discussions on skeptical topics, websites like Science-Based Medicine and Doubtful News, and What's the Harm document new developments in skeptical news, and organizations like JREF and The Skeptics Society offer the opportunity to talk with fellow skeptics.  Or if you'd rather sit down with a good book, try the works of Michael Shermer, Martin Gardner, Joe Nickell, or, of course, Carl Sagan.  It was Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World that so heavily influenced my development as a skeptic, after all, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

So thanks for the support for the past five years, and here's to bigger and better things in the next five.

3 comments:

  1. I've been reading Bullspotting in preparation for using it in a course in critical thinking; just decided today to look up your blog. Funny that I discover it just six days after you announce that you're not continuing it! But I can see how you might get tired of the topic.

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  2. You've done good work. Just let me apologize one more time for hastily glancing at this site lo so many years ago and thinking it was a birther blog. I'll never live that down.

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