The Myth of Fact

Despite all the evidence, many still believe Obama wasn't born in the U.S. Maybe the truth isn't what it used to be

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Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

On Aug. 4, Barack Obama, President of the United States, celebrated his 49th birthday. Or at least, he did if you live in one version of the U.S. If you live in another version, on Aug. 4, Barack Obama, the claimant to the presidency, celebrated an unknown anniversary of his birth on foreign soil, maybe in Kenya, which makes him ineligible to hold his office.

That alternative U.S. is a surprisingly big one: according to a CNN--Opinion Research poll, 27% of Americans say Obama was probably or definitely not born in this country. There's a political divide--41% of Republicans believe it--but a not insignificant 15% of Democrats do as well. And they believe it despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the rumor has been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked by the press (and dismissed by Hawaii's Republican governor).

Journalists, and those who critique them, like to believe that facts conquer all. If the press reports quickly, fully and responsibly, myths will be dispelled, scales will fall from eyes, and society will be guided along the path of reason. It's time to wonder whether that belief is itself a myth.

There is no reasonable basis on which to believe Obama was not legally born in the U.S. A lot of people believe it anyway, spurred by claims in mass e-mails echoed on websites and talk radio. Many also believe that he is a Muslim, that 9/11 was an inside job or the work of Saddam Hussein, that health care reform will establish "death panels," that FEMA made plans for "concentration camps," that Trig Palin's real mother is not Sarah but Bristol, that corporations or community organizers stole this or that election.

Rumors and conspiracy theories are oddly comforting. They simplify a complex world--one that experts constantly get wrong. They reaffirm narratives (Obama is dishonest, Obama is un-American, Obama is alien). They offer superiority (don't be one of the suckers). They tell the disenfranchised they are not crazy (the world really is against you). So they go far, far back--moon-landing denial, Holocaust denial, round-Earth denial.

Technology now enables rumors to spread at the speed of the Forward E-Mail button. But the common explanation--that new media let us self-select into groups and never hear news that contradicts our beliefs--may be too simple. We do hear contradictory news. But we have better ways to invalidate it.

In his book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, Farhad Manjoo writes that the rise of self-selecting media tribes has led to a decrease in "generalized trust" but an increase in "particularized trust." We have less faith in society at large: government, the press, the general electorate. But, like the residents of virtual villages, we have ever stronger trust in our small networks.

People now live in self-buttressing fortresses of myth, where debunking a belief only confirms it. If you want to believe that Obama is an illegitimate President, you can choose from any number of reasons not to believe me if I say otherwise. The media make things up: look at Jayson Blair! And who is this Poniewozik guy? A liberal member of the liberal media trying to carry water for his liberal President! Consider the source! Why is he trying so hard to convince me? What is he so afraid of?

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