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The Birtherism Conspiracy

Birtherism is a primarily political conspiracy that purports that President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States and therefore should not have been made president. Though the conspiracy had been circulated previously,  Politico notes that it was bolstered in 2008 by supporters of Hillary Clinton, who hoped to find anything to knock Obama out of the running for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Much was made of Obama’s religious heritage (Is he Muslim?) and the place where he was born (Was he born in Kenya?) which the Atlantic  notes as also telling of who Americans feel should belong in the country or not. Donald Trump reignited the issue in 2011 by calling for Obama to release his birth certificate, which the White House, in fact, did. For the most part, the release of the long-form birth certificate was enough to get the public to drop the birth conspiracy. However, as this study concludes, those who continue to question the legitimacy of Obama’s birth documents do so because of all the disinformation that has gone on in the media for years. The issue will most likely never be fully resolved, as pockets of people still will refuse to believe factual evidence.

There were several tactics used to try and sell this conspiracy. A major one was the use of doctored images and documents to try to show a foreign birth.  A California dentist and lawyer attempted to produce a Kenyan birth certificate on multiple occasions that was discovered to have been faked- an example of fabrication . Another major tactic used was smearing and harassment. Over Obama’s time in the senate and journey to the White House, many public figures began to tout claims questioning if Obama was of the Muslim faith in addition to the birth claims. The former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy went as far as to paint Obama as an Islamist extremist that was bent on bringing ideas into the U.S. that would destroy freedom, the economy, and certain American values. While these claims were unfounded, they continued to be shared over and over saturating online media and potentially influencing the opinion of the average person. Those with an anchoring bias would be highly likely to be more unfavorable of a presidential candidate who had so much controversy and questions surrounding his beliefs and upbringing. CISA details that those making conspiracy claims are using the information that they are touting as means to change a narrative (in this case, influence elections), target a certain audience (done by Democrats and Republicans), and ultimately, reframe people’s worldview about the subject.

Former President Obama has made it a priority since he left office to address disinformation and how it is promulgated through social media, using his personal experiences as examples. Social media was a mixed blessing for him, as it helped elevate him and get his first term, while it also increased the scope of false information spread about him throughout his second term. Social media algorithms have made it easier to push narratives and share disinformation instantly with the effect of influencing vast numbers of people in a short period of time. The birtherism issue was only a small glimpse of what the media landscape has become today, and it remains to be seen whether more regulation will come.

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