I wanted to get a sense of what the Internet was saying about Obama’s birth certificate–what does someone coming fresh to the issue get from the most popular Internet search engine1? To find out, I sent a naive query2 to Google: obama birth certificate. The top 10 results with some commentary and conclusions follow:
The first article that comes up is the White House web page announcing the release of Obama’s long form birth certificate, and the second is the Wikipedia article on “Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories.”
Someone who skips the official announcement and thinks the Wikipedia is unreliable (and many do) might go to the third result and get an article at what appears to be a conventional news site, the World Tribune, and find an article titled “Forensic findings on Obama’s birth certificate: ‘A 100 percent forgery, no doubt about it’” by Grace Vuoto that opens:
There is a problem with President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate: It’s a forgery, say multiple forensic experts who have examined it. A report detailing the evidence will soon be presented to Congress.
The article goes on to state as fact many discredited claims of Mike Zullo and the Cold Case Posse, and to pretend that there is no “other side” in the controversy. The naive reader might well be fooled into thinking that this is a mainstream publication with the integrity and fact checking that comes with that. An interesting article about the World Tribune, by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker, says otherwise:
In fact, the World Tribune is not published in the United Kingdom, nor is it, to be precise, a newspaper. It is a Web site produced, more or less as a hobby, in Falls Church, Virginia, and is dedicated to the notion, as its mission statement explains, that “there is a market for news of the world and not just news of the weird.”
…Although [editor and publisher of the World Times Robert] Morton said, “We emphasize newspaper standards to counter the half-baked, unfiltered content on some online sites,” World Tribune.com more fairly qualifies as something between a newspaper and a rumor-mongering blog. Call it “blews.”
McGrath goes on to document some “faux news” stories published at the World Tribune including the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
At the number 4 slot, we’re in pretty deep trouble with an article from the epicenter of birth certificate doubt mongering, WorldNetDaily with the unattributed article, “Obama birth-certificate doubts head to Capitol.” I has quotes from Zullo, video clips from Carl Gallups and a side order of the McInnish v. Chapman case before the Alabama Supreme Court. In typical WND fashion, much “old news” is tacked onto the article to make it longer.
Finally, in 5th place, we arrive at a respected news source, that specializes in investigating claims by others, and has some real journalistic standards–PolitiFact. Their article is a compendium of things said about the birth certificate, rating them from “True” (“a federal judge sanctions Tennessee ‘birther’ lawyer … for bringing a frivolous lawsuit.”) to “False” (“President Obama has spent over $2 million in legal fees defending lawsuits about his birth certificate”) to “Pants on fire” (“Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie made a late-night visit to Kinko’s to forge President Barack Obama’s birth certificate two days before Obama unveiled it to the media.”)
Returning to the WorldNetDaily lineage (WND publisher Joseph Farah founded it), we have an article at the Center for Western Journalism, a wrapper for a video interview with Mike Zullo, “Under the Microscope: The Obama Birth Certificate.”
At lucky number 7, we find the popular debunking site Snopes.com and their article “Barack Obama Birth Certificate.”
Rounding out the top 10, we have:
Renew America: Obama’s reckoning to come November 19 by birther attorney Larry Klayman. “Klayman calls for the masses to force resignation of convicted President.” (Klayman had held a mock trial in Florida.)
Politico.com: “Trump spars with ABC reporter over Obama’s birth certificate”
At least according to the search engines, Mike Zullo and the Cold Case Posse is the main story on the Internet about Obama’s birth certificate. That’s what’s news, and a number of older articles carry some background and debunking of the issue in general (but most are pre-Zullo).
Here’s my opinion about the web sites returned by Google in two categories:
- Reliable: 5 (1, 2, 5, 7, 9)
- Unreliable: 5 (3, 4, 6, 8, 10)
- Pro Obama: 2 (1, 10)
- Anti Obama: 4 (3, 4, 6, 8)
- Neutral: 4 (2, 5, 7, 9)
The naive searcher faces an uphill battle using search engine results to evaluate claims that there is something awry with Barack Obamas’ birth certificate. They have to wade through a great deal of misinformation and bias (50% of the articles on Google’s first results page) in order to get to the facts. While claims by Mike Zullo are front and center, debunking of the Cold Case Posse is on the back pages.
I suppose it’s an unrealistic expectation to get truth from a search engine. Nevertheless, it’s how many get their facts. I’m concerned about the spread of the birtherism disease, and will continue to think about how to help make things better.
1Would another search engine would give better results. I gave Bing a try.
- WorldNetDaily: “Obama birth-certificate doubts head to Capitol” (Zullo story)
- ABC News: “Obama’s Birth Certificate Could Be a Forgery” (Zullo story)
- Snopes: “Barack Obama Birth Certificate”
- White House: “President Obama’s Long Form Birth Certificate”
- Was Obama Born in Kenya? “Barack Obama’s Birth Certificate” (Lucas Smith)
- Wikipedia: “Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories”
- BarackObama.com: “Fight the smears: The Truth about Barack’s birth certificate.”
- Huffington Post: “Obama Birth Certificate”
- YouTube: “PROOF!!! Obama Birth Certificate Fraud” (this Alex Jones 2011 video has almost 1 million views)
- Factcheck.org: Born in the U. S. A.
2Google has an option to get results tailored for the user, or world-wide results; I picked the latter.