Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Thoughts on the Palin Email

BY Zephyr Teachout | Friday, September 5 2008

In the last few days I have gotten an email from an inordinate number of friends of mine.

The email they are forwarding purports to be from a woman from Wasilla who knew Palin. It includes lots of claims about her record as mayor and governor along the lines of this:

What did Mayor Palin encourage the voters to borrow money for? Was it the infrastructure that she said she supported? The sewage treatment plant that the city lacked? or a new library? No. $1m for a park. $15m-plus for construction of a multi-use sports complex which she rushed through to build on a piece of property that the City didn't even have clear title to, that was still in litigation 7 yrs later--to the delight of the lawyers involved!

The subject line of the email is often something like "did you hear this about Sarah Palin..." or "Palin info" or "Important on Palin."

Its well-written and very detailed. I don't know that it is false, and am in no position to judge it. What strikes me is that I also don't have any real reason to know that it is true. It is forwarded to me from friends who got it from friends who got it from friends--for all I know Kevin Bacon's inbox influx is crashing his computer.

In other words, it bears some resemblance to the demonstrably false emails about Barack Obama that have circulated for the past year, some of which were forwarded to me by friends whose friends' friends or family received them, with titles like "important information about Obama...."

They are not the same. The claims made about Obama are patently false; the claims made about Palin may well be true, but I need more to confirm it. The claims about Obama are obviously inflamatory; the tone of the Palin emails are much quieter. But I think, for those who have received or forwarded these Palin emails, its a good moment for some empathy to understand how the Obama emails move, and to reflect on how we should take in information.

We can feel, as citizens, as if we're between a scylla and charybdis of information.

On the one hand, the post-modern political reporters and bloggers act as hack theater critics, judging performances not by how they as individuals respond, but by how they believe the mythical "american people," "independent voters," and "women" (and most bizarrely "the media") will respond. The standard role of the most prominent commentator and reporter is theater critic first, fact-checker second, independent questioner a distant third. (The inverted triangle reflects this--five paragraphs of post-modern critique; two paragraphs of fact-checking; an unanswered question dangled like a preposition going nowhere at the end.) The pictures accompanying the articles are not post-modern but pre-modern, either submissive glorious shots of the intended frame, or grotesque caricatures.

On the other hand, we have emails like the Palin ones, which purport to tell us real information about what she did, from a real person, and in our hunger for political storytelling in the classic sense (stories that answer this question: "what does she do when she has power?"), that feel thick and rich and have the added sheen of authenticity.

There's lots of good reporting, too--I heard a great interview with David Kilpatrick of the NYTimes on Fresh Air last night, really "reporting"--that is, describing--what McCain, as an adult, has done: how he has lived, how he has used power, how he has thought.

But when I sit at my computer screen trying to finish an article on extraterritorial electioneering for a law review, and an IM or email pops up, someone twitters, someone texts, someone calls--I check the home page of a few blogs and papers--it can feel exhausting to row firmly between these two crags, to do the work of a citizen, give myself a good diet of information, resist forwarding unconfirmed rumors, resist battling the theater critics on their own terms.

All of which is a long way of saying, I understand the impulse to forward these messages when we are hungry for narratives about power instead of theater. The Palin emails have helped me understand, too, how the Obama emails moved so far and so fast. And, relatedly, I am both horrified by the emails and unwilling to dismiss or hate those who hungrily pass on rumors. Some sympathy seems in order--not too much--but enough to resist painting other emailers as rubes or rogues.

The Obama campaign is doing the right thing by answering the false claims about him on the facts, and calling lies lies. But we have all become responsible for political truth, like it or not. One of the costs of the information era is that we all have a very high level of responsibility when it comes to forwarding information; a level that can test even the best of us.

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.