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Fact-free claim about Obama citizenship gains ground among those willing to see conspiracies

WASHINGTON -- The false allegation that President Barack Obama was born in another country is more than a fact-free smear.

Marked by accusations and backstabbing, it's the story of how a small but intense movement called "birthers" rose from a handful of people prone to seeing conspiracies, aided by the Internet, magnified without evidence by eager radio and cable TV hosts, and eventually ratified by a small group of Republican politicians working to keep the story alive on the floors of Congress and the campaign trails of the Midwest.

It's a powerful story about what experts call political paranoia over a new face in a time of anxiety and rapid change -- the sort of viral message that can take hold among a sliver of the populace that's ready to believe that their new president is a fraud, and just as ready to angrily dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as part of the conspiracy.

"He is NOT an American citizen," yelled a woman at a town hall meeting in Delaware, angrily confronting a congressman. "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back."

When Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., responded that Obama is a citizen, she and others in the room jeered him.

"It's a fascinating phenomenon," said Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and author of the recent book "Political Paranoia."

"They are not searching for the truth. They are searching for anything that confirms their fixed idea, their malevolent idea. . . . It doesn't soothe people to tell them it's not legitimate. That makes them angry."

The tale

Birthers charge that Obama hasn't proved that he was born a U.S. citizen, and therefore isn't eligible to be president under the constitutional requirement that the president be 35 years old, be a resident of the country for at least 14 years, and be a natural-born citizen.

They also say that a birth certificate posted on the Internet by Obama during his campaign isn't the original, and a forgery anyway.


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