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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

April Fools’… Still

In view of today’s date, we’d like to pay tribute to the longest-running and most successful April Fools’ hoax we’ve yet encountered.

In the spring of 2009, a chain e-mail started circulating with claims of a "smoking gun" proving President Obama was a foreigner.

AP- WASHINGTON D.C. – In a move certain to fuel the debate over Obama’s qualifications for the presidency, the group “Americans for Freedom of Information” has released copies of President Obama’s college transcripts from Occidental College. Released today, the transcript indicates that Obama, under the name Barry Soetoro, received financial aid as a foreign student from Indonesia as an undergraduate at the school. The transcript was released by Occidental College in compliance with a court order in a suit brought by the group in the Superior Court of California. The transcript shows that Obama (Soetoro) applied for financial aid and was awarded a fellowship for foreign students from the Fulbright Foundation Scholarship program. To qualify, for the scholarship, a student must claim foreign citizenship. This document would seem to provide the smoking gun that many of Obama’s detractors have been seeking.

The dateline, April 1, should have been the first clue for alert readers. If that wasn’t enough, they could have done a quick Google — sorry, "Topeka" — search on "Americans for Freedom of Information." At the time, they would have found no record of any such organization. Later on, in May, they might have discovered a new blog called "Americans for Freedom of Information: We Do Not Exist." The title has now been changed to "Americans for Freedom of Information: Really Now, We Do Not Exist." A recent post reads:

You know, when we started this website, Americans for Freedom of Information, we thought it would be a short-time effort to point out the absurdity in the fake Associated Press “news story” that some desperate right-winger pulled together in an effort to make you think that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country. Surely, we thought, if we just make it apparent to people that the group “Americans for Freedom of Information” did not actually exist, then everybody will figure out that they’ve been hoaxed and move on to some new crackpot conspiracy, maybe about Corn Flakes.

But no. Seven months later, the completely fictitious “shocking revelation” that Barack Obama registered at Occidental College under the name “Barry Soetoro” is still being posted as fresh news on right-wing websites.

Needless to say, they’re right. This article is a transparent hoax — about the only thing in it with any truth at all is the April 1 date. Obama was registered and received a scholarship under the name Barack Obama. The scholarship was not a Fulbright. Occidental hasn’t released Obama’s transcripts under any court order. And this article is not from the Associated Press. We posted an article saying all of that on May 7, 2009, after getting scores of inquiries. And yet today — April 1, 2010 — we received the following e-mail: "Did President Obama request and/or receive, foriegn student financial aid while he was a student at Occidental College?" That’s not a fluke: We’ve gotten three queries about this utterly fabricated "fact" in the last 24 hours, six in the past week.

Call it a testament to the power and quirkiness of the Internet — it can shuttle fake news around at the speed of light, but somehow buzz-killing fact-checks move more slowly. Or call it a tribute to the e-mail’s anonymous author, who pulled off a remarkably successful April Fools’ coup, which is still making fools of those who wish to believe that President Obama was not born in the U.S.A. At any rate, while this is hardly the longest-running false rumor — we get frequent questions, for instance, about a petition to the FCC that Snopes.com found was defeated in 1975 — it’s certainly the most tenacious April Fools’ prank we’ve seen.

Happy birthday, Fulbright hoax. You’ve succeeded beyond reason.