Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2005-07-25/Joke turned rumor

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Wikipedia-inspired joke turns into blog rumor

By Michael Snow, 25 July 2005

The Wikipedia article on United States Supreme Court nominee John Roberts was the focus of considerable attention last week, and not just in terms of heavy editing. It also inspired a joke that transformed into a rumor circulating in the blogosphere that Roberts might be homosexual, or at any rate a rumor that people might be trying to spread such a rumor.

The incident began Wednesday with a relatively new blogger using the name Manhattan Offender, who highlighted some aspects of Roberts' Wikipedia biography in his post, "How gay is this guy?" Manhattan Offender says that it was entirely a joke, and that he doesn't think the post actually implies that Roberts is gay, which he does not believe anyway.

The idea was nevertheless picked up elsewhere, now amplified by the effect of a Thursday New York Times biographical piece, which both the gossipy Wonkette [1] and the more serious Ann Althouse [2] found laden with subtle clues that Roberts might be a closet homosexual. Both highlighted, among other things, the fact that Roberts had played the part of Peppermint Patty in a high school play, and Wonkette also linked back to Manhattan Offender's post.

Charmaine Yoest [3] called this part of a "whisper campaign" to discredit Roberts with his own supporters, on the premise that they would be disturbed to learn that he was homosexual. From here the story spread to other conservative blogs. Michelle Malkin [4] briefly noted the furor and added, "The 'closet gay' meme is spreading in the swamps", by which she meant some comments on Daily Kos (more speculation from the Kos site). The story also ended up on Power Line [5], which charged "some Democrats" with actively "hinting" that Roberts was homosexual. Jeff Jarvis [6] called this "an absolutely bizarre post".

Although the incident rapidly turned into a partisan debate over the resulting rumor, it had no such overtones when it started, apparently innocent of what would transpire. Manhattan Offender says he knew nothing about other sources of the rumor, but simply read the Wikipedia article and found the similarities to his own background funny enough to write about. He adds that he's not even left-wing, but was registered as a Republican until Bush's endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment.

The sequence of events was finally analyzed by Marty Schwimmer to see how the joke turned into a rumor. He noted that as the story was retold some elements were omitted, such as the humorous intent, and emphasis on other details shifted so that "the story is changed to make sense to those spreading the rumor." Both Yoest [7] and Althouse [8] responded with objections about how their roles were portrayed by others. Yoest pointed out that there was no reason for her to think that the New York Times at least was trying to be humorous, while Althouse felt that Power Line in particular had twisted her observations in order to reach its result.

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