How do you kill a nasty accusation when you don’t know who started it or why?
It’s a question that Indiana’s senior U.S. senator, Dan Coats, asked himself recently when he — along with a small, bipartisan mix of senators and mayors — was accused on social media of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The allegation was posted anonymously, without evidence, on the document-dumping website Pastebin. Some reports initially, and erroneously, attributed it to the hacktivist collective Anonymous.
Coats said it seemed, at first, too ridiculous to warrant a response.
That was before the accusation blew up on Twitter, prompting calls from reporters around the country and resulting in online media headlines including this one: “Several U.S. senators outed as members of the KKK.”
“We didn’t realize how viral this thing was,” a weary-sounding Coats said a few days later.
He and his staff spent days beating down the allegation with posts such as this to his official Twitter account: “This is baseless Internet garbage of the worst kind.”
And, as he said later, “It’s deeply wounding.”
Not to mention confusing.
The supposed Klan members outed with Coats included an openly gay mayor, another mayor who worked for Latino labor leader Caesar Chavez, as well as Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, a gun-control advocate.
Not exactly Klan material.
At 72, Coats has spent much of his adult life in public office — in the U.S. House of Representatives, then in the Senate, with a stint in between as U.S. ambassador to Germany. He’s been vetted by the FBI, Senate Intelligence Committee staff and political opponents who’d have been happy to find such dirt.
Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks Klan activity, called the accusation against Coats “baseless” and “horrifying,” while coloring her descriptions with a few emphatic, though unprintable words.
“No one deserves to be put through the ringer with an accusation like that,” she said.
Only a fool, she added, would think a U.S. senator could be a member of the Klan without an organization like hers knowing about it.
There’s the rub. For all the good the Internet brings to the world, sometimes it’s a fool’s paradise.
Nicco Mele, an expert in the intersection of politics and technology and the author of “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath,” said Coats’ experience is increasingly common.
For the past decade, the fast rise of uncensored and unedited social media means any post about a politician can take on the permanent appearance of truth.
“It’s a very fractured and dangerous landscape for public officials today,” Mele said.
How to respond is a dilemma.
Responding to a lie fed by social media gives it legitimacy. Ignoring it gives it currency, he warned.
“Generally, I believe you have to respond quickly, unequivocally and with overwhelming force to try to kill these things before they get any traction,” he said. “But, even then, the odds that you can kill it are small.”
A case in point: In 2008, an anonymous email went viral online with the false accusation that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim.
It took what Mele called the Obama team’s use of the “maximum power of the bully pulpit” to eventually put the myth to bed, years later.
“And even then, they didn’t kill it,” he said. “That’s the reality of life in the digital age.”
That’s what haunts Coats.
He’s had mud slung at him and survived. He’s already announced that he’s retiring from public life at the end of next year. So, he’s not so worried about the lie following him.
“It’s hurtful but it comes with the territory,” he said.
Instead, he worries about it following his grandchildren when they leap onto social media. He worries about it following his young staffers when they search for their next job.
“I can just imagine, years from now, them being questioned about it,” he said.
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to email@example.com.