When President Barack Obama marched into the White House briefing room with his Hawaii birth certificate in April 2011, he said: “I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest.”
How right he was. The release of his long-form birth certificate did not eliminate the “birther” movement, which contends that Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be president. Although conspiracists had demanded its release, once he made public the document it merely shifted the debate. Some birthers accused Obama of forgery, while others turned their focus to his college transcripts in hopes of proving that he had applied for admission as a foreign student. (He had not.)
And this week, birthers seized on a plane crash off Hawaii that killed one person: state public health Director Loretta Fuddy, the woman who verified the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate.
Skeptics turned to social media Thursday to suggest that Obama had played some role in Fuddy’s death. Twitter posts included: “The WH tying up loose ends?” “What did she really know?” and “R.I.P. Loretta Fuddy — we’ll know the truth about Barack Hussein Obama, regardless.”
Donald Trump, a longtime doubter of Obama’s birthplace, also weighed in on Twitter: “How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today. All others lived.”
That reaction didn’t surprise those who study conspiracy theorists.
Mark Fenster, University of Florida law professor who wrote a book on conspiracy theories, said adherents will search for evidence to support their beliefs, and each piece of news can give their theory new life.
“The theories themselves are a process of stitching together individual facts to form a larger narrative, and this is just one more fact that gets linked to the chain,” Fenster said.
Fuddy, 65, was among nine people in a Cessna that crashed into the ocean Wednesday, shortly after leaving Kalaupapa Airport on the island of Molokai about 3:15 p.m. The eight others on the plane, including the pilot, were rescued, but Fuddy “remained in the fuselage of the plane,” Honolulu Fire Capt. Terry Seelig told KHON-TV. “It’s always a difficult situation when you’re not able to get everybody out.”
For Orly Taitz, the leading birther litigator who has argued in several federal courts that Obama isn’t a natural-born American, the sole fatality was too much of a coincidence.
“Attorney Taitz calls on 8 courts and judges who received her cases to rule expeditiously on the merits and review the evidence of forgery and theft in Obama’s IDs before more people die in strange accidents,” she said on her website. Taitz has yet to win a case in the matter.
Anyone who believes that Obama’s birth certificate is fake will find a way to tie the plane crash to their beliefs, said Dan Cassino, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
It’s unclear how many people ascribe to birther beliefs. But a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University in January found that 36 percent of voters, including 64 percent of Republicans, believed Obama is hiding information about his background.
Conspiracy theories aren’t new, Cassino noted. The birthplace of the 21st president, Chester A. Arthur, became a point of contention in 1881 as rumors spread that he had been born in Canada.
The Internet has made it easier to spread outlandish theories, Cassino said. Thirty years ago, if you tried to tell people about a farfetched belief, they’d ignore you, he said. But online, “you can go and find a community of people who all agree with you.”
This causes a false-consensus effect, in which people overestimate how many people agree with them, he said. Under these conditions, the loudest voices win, and theories become more and more extreme, he said.
Fenster said he didn’t think the Internet had increased the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories. But it does provide people with a platform to instantaneously make their beliefs known, and allows theories to develop much more quickly, he said.
Although the number of theories may have gone up, Fenster said, the number of people who believe in them probably has not.