Chasing Conspiracy Theorists

Late in the morning of November 3, to the chagrin of many of his supporters, John Kerry resisted the pressure to fight until each and every vote had been counted and recounted, and conceded the race to President Bush.

Since that day, conspiracy theories have been flying across the Wide World Web, each declaring that George Bush stole the election for the second time in four years. Most of the Internet chatter has focused on voting irregularities, specifically, reports that Bush received 4,258 votes in an Ohio County where only 638 ballots were cast, and that in some Florida counties Bush won by a astounding margin compared to the number of registered Republicans. Other sites claim that it was the Tuesday afternoon exit polls giving Kerry a consistent lead in half-dozen key states that were, in fact, correct, and it was the tallies of the actual votes that were way off.

Over the course of the campaign season Internet chatter heavily influenced coverage of some stories — Bush’s military records and RatherGate come to mind — so it’s not surprising that over the last two days we’ve seen two major news outlets issue lengthy treatments on the latest Internet rumors.

Both have been dismissive. Yesterday, the Boston Globe wrote, “Much of the traffic is little more than Internet-fueled conspiracy theories, and none of the vote-counting problems and anomalies that have emerged are sufficiently widespread to have affected the election’s ultimate result.”

And today we heard from the Washington Post: “Ultimately, none of the most popular theories holds up to close scrutiny.”

The Internet is not the only place where these theories are being propagated. According to yesterday’s Washington Post and a story today from the AFP, Ralph Nader has remounted his soap box, demanding a recount in battleground states based on supposed voting irregularities and the exit poll results.

Inexplicably. the Nader stories have run without any indication whether or not the third-party candidate is on-target with his complaints or just letting out a lot of hot air. Nowhere do readers learn, as the Globe and today’s Postpointed out, that exit polls are always subject to error and that the polling company itself reported problems with its results throughout the day on November 2. (For more on this subject check out this post from Mystery Pollster).

And nowhere do the Nader stories tell you that many of the protests about voter fraud just don’t add up.

Campaign Desk finds it hard to fault the press for its decision to fact-check the political grumblings on the Internet, whose conspiracists have far more potential influence than Ralph Nader. But that’s no excuse for not giving Nader’s complaints equal scrutiny.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.