Rumormongering and whisper campaigns are as old as politics itself (throughout Thomas Jefferson's presidency opposition newspapers and pamphlets spread the word of his affair with Sally Hemings), but never has there been a medium as perfectly suited to the widespread anonymous diffusion of misinformation as e-mail. David Mikkelson, who, along with his wife, Barbara, founded and runs the website Snopes.com, knows this better than anyone. Devoted exclusively to debunking (and occasionally confirming) urban legends and e-mail-circulated apocrypha, Snopes attracts 4-5 million unique visitors a month, making it one of the Internet's most popular sites. In the early days, Mikkelson says, there were hardly any political urban legends, but that changed in 2000. "A lot of the things that were circulating in the world at large, things like ridiculing Al Gore for supposedly inventing the Internet," started to be passed along via e-mail, as well as "a photograph of Gore holding a gun intended to mock him for not holding it safely."
From the beginning, the vast majority of these Internet-disseminated rumors have come from the right. (Snopes lists about fifty e-mails about George W. Bush, split evenly between adulatory accounts of him saluting wounded soldiers or witnessing to a wayward teenager, and accounts of real and invented malapropisms. In contrast, every single one of the twenty-two e-mails about John Kerry is negative.) For conservatives, these e-mails neatly reinforce preconceptions, bending the facts of the world in line with their ideological framework: liberals, immigrants, hippies and celebrities are always the enemy; soldiers and conservatives, the besieged heroes. The stories of the former's perfidy and the latter's heroism are, of course, never told by the liberal media. So it's left to the conservative underground to get the truth out. And since the general story and the roles stay the same, often the actual characters are interchangeable.