The term “folklorist” may conjure up visions of a scholar immersed in the fairytale world of folktales, legends and lore. But in the 21st century, folklorists such as Patricia Turner track contemporary everyday utterances. The author of two books about race and racial bias that are embedded in rumors, legends and popular culture, Turner has used her analytical skills as a folklorist to investigate a much darker world — one that former President Barack Obama has found himself confronting since he entered national politics.

In her latest book, “Trash Talk: Anti-Obama Lore and Race in the Twenty-First Century” (University of California Press, 2022), Turner describes the rampant rumors, conspiracy theories and lies spread by Russian bots and individuals, which led to chaos and divided the U.S. during three presidential campaigns. Her book is a warning to Americans about the intractability and persistence of disinformation and conspiracy theories. A UC professor for more than 30 years, Turner has also served as vice provost and dean at UCLA and UC Davis.

You began tracking anti-Obama lore almost 20 years ago. What drew a folklorist to the “trash talk” that targeted Barack Obama?

Folklorists focus on the discourse of everyday life, on the exchanges that people have informally. People usually think we delve into folktales, folk music, humor, jokes and proverbs. But there’s a centuries-old tradition of studying legends. To a folklorist, a conspiracy theory is a subset of the legend genre. A legend is a narrative that’s told as true, with no objective standards of evidence. It belongs to the conspiracy theory category when there’s a motif or an element of collusion on the part of someone in power. I started studying legends in graduate school at UC Berkeley and wrote two earlier books in that area. So when Obama burst onto the scene, I could see in him the characteristics that trigger rumormongering, the development of legends and conspiracy theories. People discomforted by the notion of a Black first family would be looking for missteps, things they could seize on. And they would know who in their network would respond to a rumor in an email, tweet or post. People who knew me and my area of study began sending me material — about Obama not being patriotic because he didn’t wear an American flag lapel pin, for example. That was the genesis.

Of course, the racially inflected rumor that has persisted is that Obama couldn’t become president because he was born in Kenya, that he was Muslim and had a hidden agenda because he was radicalized in Jakarta, Indonesia, as a young student. Did Donald Trump start the birther rumor?

The birther rumor predated Donald Trump. He just seized on something that had already gained momentum. Initially, it was linked to the lies about Obama being unpatriotic. “I just heard he was not American.” “His father was Kenyan, so he was probably born in Kenya.”

Trump became involved in 2012, when he was considering running for president. He went to one of the most virulent, anti-Obama sites and asked the editor what most incites anger in your readers. The response was: Anytime we say anything about Obama not being born in the United States, our readers go apoplectic. That’s the point at which Trump embraces it and runs with it.

A 2011 poll you cited showed that 13% of those responding said Obama was probably or definitely born in another country. Legal challenges to his eligibility were filed in 13 states. Why were the rumormongers so successful at raising doubts about Obama’s citizenship?

They were unrelenting in their presentation of what they called evidence, even after Obama presented his birth certificate. Similar to what’s going on now with election denialism, they just kept generating doubt, and they put Obama in a defensive position. There’s very real evidence that when you deny something that someone hasn’t heard before, they sometimes don’t hear the denial. To someone who is already a far-right supporter, then it’s an “Aha!” moment. There are others who, when they hear a denial, will say, “If that’s true, why doesn’t he aggressively deny it at a press conference?” So Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

His campaign decided to launch a “Fight the Smears” web page to combat these rumors. Was it effective?

The web page was set up as part of his campaign website. So you had to be willing to work to find it, and you had to be open to the possibility that the evidence might contradict what your Uncle Harvey told you. Although Obama’s campaign staff was optimistic that this would stem the tide of rumors, it didn’t.

While he was president, there was no place where people could go on the White House website to find evidence disputing these rumors. But I don’t think Obama could have truly eliminated the smears or kept them from propagating.

Do you think Obama and his staff should have done more?

In retrospect, I would have encouraged him and the people working for him to take these things more seriously. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s staff should have been more aware of the potency of the anti-Obama lore that turned voters to Trump because they hated Obama.

Hillary Clinton ran up against conspiracy theories with Pizzagate, the claim that she was part of a child sex-trafficking ring operating out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.

In her autobiography, she acknowledged that she didn’t take it as seriously as she might have. She thought that a small fringe group was behind it, so it was just too ludicrous. After all, how many Americans actually thought she was getting away with pedophilia and child murder? At the time she wrote her book, I’m not sure she understood the full impact of the theory because it became the foundation for QAnon, which has only grown stronger. Since Trump started to repeat their mantras and play their music at his rallies, they have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence.

It’s been six years since Obama left the White House. Have we heard the last of the trash talk about him?

On the contrary. Now, the most current texts involve Joe Biden. According to comments that surfaced recently, Obama is enjoying a third term, with Joe Biden — “O’Biden” they call him — as his puppet. In one particularly twisted version, Joe Biden is dead, and it’s Obama who’s in charge and manipulating the deep state that he set up during his two administrations so that his left-wing agenda can be perpetuated.

As the midterms approach, the notion that Obama is still in power, that we’re moving toward another civil war, is still very present. There is so much vitriol out there. If the Trump-backed candidates lose, will they accept that loss? Trump gave permission for people to deny the results if they don’t like it.

How do you persuade people to see through all the noise?

Take a good look at who is profiting by disseminating these lies. Some people are convinced that Alex Jones is right about Obama being Satan. But they might bend a little if you show them that Alex Jones has become a multimillionaire, with so many ads running on his website. See how many attempts are made on his website — and all the others — to get you to send money to support the cause. There’s a capitalist motive operating here. So, it’s all about gently encouraging people to conduct thorough research.