Viral e-mails didn’t really come into widespread use until early in the last decade, says David Emery, who tracks urban legends for About.com. The first big target was a Democrat: presidential candidate John Kerry, subjected to wild claims about his wealth, his service in Vietnam and the supposed radical connections of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Nonpartisan debunkers such as FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, PolitiFact.com, Emery and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker have been chasing down these tales and dousing them like three-alarm fires for years. (There’s even a chain e-mail that paints Snopes as a liberal cover-up for the White House.) It’s often difficult for these myth-busters to say with certainty where a falsehood began. But the numbers are clear.
Of the 79 chain e-mails about national politics deemed false by PolitiFact since 2007, only four were aimed at Republicans. Almost all of the rest concern Obama or other Democrats. The claims range from daffy (the White House renaming Christmas trees as “holiday trees”) to serious (the health-care law granting all illegal immigrants free care).
Snopes turned up 46 viral e-mails regarding Bush during his eight years in office. By contrast, in just four years as a candidate and as president, Obama has been the subject of 100 such chain e-mails. The difference is not just in number but in kind: Twenty of the 46 Bush e-mails checked by Snopes turned out to be true, and many of these flattered or praised him. Only 10 e-mails about Obama have been true, and almost every one of them has been negative.
Emery estimates that more than 80 percent of the political e-mails that he’s vetted over the past decade were written from a conservative point of view. “The use of forwarded e-mail to spread [false information] around is overwhelmingly a right-wing phenomenon,” he said.