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Obama turns to internet in bid to sell his health care reforms

Palin joins critics with attack on 'death panels' which would deny care to the old, she claims

Recognising that he has lost control of the debate over US healthcare reform, President Barack Obama has begun pleading with the American people not to listen to misinformation from right-wing opponents.

Worried lieutenants are hoping to recreate the successes of his election campaign by harnessing the internet to counter attacks such as the one launched by the former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, who said the administration's plans would set up "Obama death panels" which would deny health care to the old and disabled.

The White House will this week launch a website dedicated to health reform, filled with fact sheets and videos to explain the complex proposals drafted on Capitol Hill. The aim of the legislation is to extend health care coverage to the 40 million people in the US without insurance and to drive down costs but Republicans have opposed most of the plans, saying it would ration treatment.

Pro-reform lawmakers have returned to their constituencies nervous that the increasingly incendiary language being used in the debate could spill over into ugly scenes at town hall meetings over the summer recess.

Videos of angry constituents shouting down politicians have been posted on the internet, along with pictures of demonstrations against reform, in what Democrats have argued is an orchestrated campaign masquerading as a grassroots uprising.

Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, said the health care reform logo looked like a swastika and compared the Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi – an architect of reform legislation – to Adolf Hitler. One Senator said he had received death threats for supporting the reform proposals. And Ms Palin's intervention – via a message on her Facebook page – only inflamed matters over the weekend.

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society', whether they are worthy of health care," she said. "Such a system is downright evil."

Mr Obama had to deny he was promoting euthanasia. In his weekly YouTube video, he said opponents were resorting to "outlandish rumours" and "misleading information" to thwart the best chance at reforming health care in a generation. "As we draw close to finalising - and passing – real health insurance reform, the defenders of the status quo and political point-scorers in Washington are growing fiercer in their opposition," he said.

Most Americans now disapprove of Mr Obama's handling of health care and the White House is haunted by the fear that reform plans could collapse this year in the same way that they did in 1993 under Bill Clinton, hobbling his nascent presidency.

For this reason, Mr Obama's YouTube message also included a subtle but potentially very important rebranding. Instead of talking about health care reform, he called it "health insurance reform", in an attempt to neutralise claims that the quality of care could decline.

Linda Douglass, who heads the White House communications effort on health care, promised that the new website would be launched within days. "People are saying crazy things right now," she said, adding that the debate needed to become more "civil".

On the Sunday morning talk shows, Democrats ran to the aid of Mr Obama. Senator Richard Durbin, on CNN's State of the Union, said the disruption of town hall meetings was being carefully orchestrated by opponents.

"When there's a group of people honestly sitting in the middle ... and someone takes the microphone and screams and shouts until the meeting comes to an end, that isn't dialogue," he said.

But the disruptions have continued and uniformed police officers now attend town hall meetings.

In Des Moines, Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator, was interrupted by the shouting of people in the audience. At one point, a man yelled: "This is not health reform, this is control, control over our lives."