4 Dumbest Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories ... Involving Photoshop
After the White House released a picture of President Obama skeet shooting at Camp David, conservative bloggers were quick to claim that the photo had been altered or created with Adobe Photoshop or a similar graphics editing program. This follows a long, bizarre tradition of conservative media labeling a wide range of pictures and documents related to the president as fraudulent.
In the past few years, conservatives have accused President Obama and his staff of Photoshopping the short and long-form versions of the president's birth certificate, two separate photos of the president with his family, two Situation Room photos from the day of the bin Laden raid, a photo of Obama throwing a football, and now a photo of the president shooting skeet.
During an interview last month with The New Republic, President Obama was asked if he has ever fired a gun. After the president told the magazine that he goes skeet shooting with guests at Camp David, conservatives -- as well as reporters from more mainstream outlets -- sought proof. In order to quiet the skeptics, on Saturday the White House released a photo of the president shooting clay targets at Camp David in 2012:
Linking to the picture on Twitter, White House senior adviser David Plouffe joked, "let the photoshop conspiracies begin!" While Plouffe was mocking the penchant of some conservatives to turn everything related to President Obama into a conspiracy, some conservative outlets quickly proved his point by doing just that (New York Magazine has produced a comprehensive roundup of the skeet shooting conspiracies).
In an article posted Sunday at conservative website American Thinker -- an outlet frequently touted and cited by Rush Limbaugh -- titled "Seven Reasons Why it's a Photoshop," blogger Michael Harlin concluded, "if he's shooting skeet, then I'm Daffy Duck." (While the headline calls it a Photoshop, Harlin seems to waver on whether the picture was manipulated or merely "staged like everything else in President Obama's life.")
To give you some idea of the level of analysis in the piece, among Harlin's evidence that something is off about the Obama picture is his observation that unlike Obama, "most shooters wear baseball style caps" to help "block unwanted sun in your eyes."
Obama is wearing sunglasses (or tinted protective eyewear) in the photo.
It's easy to point and laugh at analyses like these, but conservatives' obsession with these Photoshop conspiracies shows the type of paranoid nonsense that has passed for journalism at many prominent conservative outlets during the Obama era.
In this report we examine right-wing claims that the president's allies have altered:
1. President Obama's Birth Certificate(s)
In June 2008, responding to widespread chain email conspiracies about nefarious secrets -- including that his middle name was "Muhammed" -- supposedly embedded in then-Senator Obama's birth certificate, his campaign posted a copy of the document on their website. Rather than move on to their next fact-free conspiracy, conservative writers set to work attempting to discredit the document.
Among the more popular posts about the birth certificate was an extensive "report" by an anonymous writer named "techdude" that conservative blogger Pamela Geller reprinted at her Atlas Shrugs website in July 2008. The report took "techdude" far enough down the rabbit hole that he focused on things like supposedly suspicious border patterns and a nonsensical "heat map" analysis of the document:
By the time conspiracy theorist and WorldNetDaily columnist Jerome Corsi went on Fox & Friends in August of 2008, he was confident enough to declare that the document posted by the Obama campaign was a "false, fake birth certificate." According to Corsi, there had at that point been "good analysis of it on the Internet, and it's been shown to have watermarks from Photoshop."
After the inane birth certificate conspiracies refused to abate for another several years -- which eventually focused on alleging that the short-form certificate posted by the Obama campaign in 2008 was either phony or insufficient proof of the president's birth in Hawaii -- the president released the "long-form" version of his birth certificate in April 2011. Once again, conservatives set to work attempting to discredit the document.
A few hours after President Obama released the long-form, Eric Bolling invited Geller on his now-defunct Fox Business program to assess a poster-sized version of the document with the help of a laser-pointer. During the conversation, Geller announced that the document was "actually not a birth certificate," and Bolling declared that the "green border" on the certificate "had to be Photoshopped in":
Attempting to label the long-form certificate a forgery has since become one of the conservative blogosphere's favorite hobbies. Jerome Corsi has posted numerous articles on the subject at WorldNetDaily, apparently convinced that whoever the Obama administration supposedly hired to conduct the forgery left a series of Da Vinci Code-style clues (which Corsi has dubbed "The Obama Code") behind in the document.
Among the anomalies in the long-form certificate highlighted by Corsi were the "distinct form of a smiley face" allegedly present in the signature of the Hawaii Registrar of Vital Statistics as well as a misspelling (clearly just smudged stamp ink) of the word "The" on the registrar stamp:
A few weeks before Obama released the long-form version of his birth certificate, conservative writer Jack Cashill posted a column at WorldNetDaily claiming President Obama had been "conspicuously photoshopped" into this picture of his grandparents sitting on a park bench in New York City:
Cashill embedded a YouTube video that purported to have found the "real" version of the photo. In the "real" version, most of the young President Obama is absent, save for his disembodied right leg:
And that might not even rank as the most bizarre instance of conservative writers claiming pictures of a younger Obama with various family members were manipulated.
In one of several articles he wrote promoting a "documentary" positing President Obama is actually the lovechild of communist writer Frank Marshall Davis, Jerome Corsi highlighted the movie's conclusion that President Obama's mother was Photoshopped into this picture posted on the president's Facebook page:
According to the article, "The black hand under Obama's right armpit doesn't match Ann Dunham's right arm... The hand appears to be a remnant from a black male before it was airbrushed." As explained by Corsi and the filmmaker, Joel Gilbert, this black male could very well have been Frank Marshall Davis, a conclusion reached thanks to the following "comparison":
In May 2012, graphic artist Mara Zebest -- who was reportedly "working closely" with Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's quest to prove Obama's birth certificate a forgery -- posted articles at American Thinker claiming that two famous photographs taken in the Situation Room on the day of the Bin Laden raid had been Photoshopped in order to create "The Illusion of Obama's Bin Laden Situation Room Leadership."
Some of Zebest's analysis confusingly hinged on President Obama wearing a jacket featuring fabric panels that looked suspiciously like pants, even though Zebest herself eventually concludes that they are part of his jacket:
Zebest also wondered why Obama had "an abrupt chunk" missing from his ear, as well as a "transparent neck edge":
Most embarrassingly, Zebest wondered why a document in one of the Situation Room photos had been blurred, while a separate document featuring the phrase "Codeword: NOFORN" on a binder in front of Secretary Clinton was left untouched.
According to Zebest, since the codename for the Bin Laden mission was "Geronimo," leaving this additional detail uncovered possibly represented "another disturbing attempt to casually release confidential information to our enemies."
As we explained at the time, "NOFORN," is not actually a secret codeword: it means the document in question is "Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals."
Six months before Zebest parsed the Situation Room photos, prominent conservative blogger Jim Hoft posted a story at his website headlined, "Swedish Paper: Obama Photoshopped into Famous Situation Room Photo."
Citing a comment thread at Free Republic, Hoft embedded a picture from Swedish tabloid Afton Bladet featuring a caption asking readers "Do you see what is wrong with this picture?" In Hoft's telling, the tabloid concluded that the picture "must be a fake." In reality, the video segment from the Swedish tabloid appeared to be about the internet meme of Photoshopping various people and things into the iconic photo:
"What is wrong with this picture" is that Sad Keanu Reeves was not actually in the Situation Room during the Bin Laden raid.
Around the same time Zebest was picking apart the Situation Room photos for insidious pants-like jackets, a separate Photoshop conspiracy emerged among conservative bloggers revolving around this photo of President Obama throwing a football:
In a post promoted by people like Breitbart.com writer Dan Riehl, a blogger at conservative website Pundit Press explained that while they are "not one for conspiracies," they had serious doubts that the football photo was real. In the blogger's analysis, it was suspicious that Obama was "inexplicably looking upwards" in the picture. Other things held out as evidence were the mysterious "pixels that surround his head and arms."
After the writer stumbled upon a higher quality version of the photograph, they conceded that "the photo was probably not doctored, but simply staged (poorly)."