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For Candidates, Web Is Power And Poison

GOP wunderkind Stephen DeMaura's anti-Clinton Facebook page has 392,000 members. (By Lori Duff For The Washington Post)

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Candidates use the Internet to generate buzz, draw grass-roots support and raise record amounts of money. But in the intense, round-the-clock world of online presidential campaigning, the good comes with the bad.

"The pool of negativity is much bigger, and it spreads virally," said Mindy Finn, chief online strategist for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign. "The Web can be hateful."

Just ask Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Sites such as StopHerNow.com and AgainstHillary.com, funded by conservatives who have followed her political career since the 1990s, are easily searchable on Google. Unflattering online videos, including the "mash-up" page that portrayed the Democratic front-runner as an Orwellian Big Brother, are heavily viewed on YouTube. And Facebook, the online sociopolitical hub of the moment, is the unofficial capital of anti-Clinton country: One group, Stop Hillary Clinton, has more than half a million members, compared with the nearly 51,000 who have signed up as supporters on her Facebook profile. It's the largest group on Facebook against a candidate.

In many ways, the Web is more effective than television advertising and direct mail, the traditional methods campaigns and independent groups have used to try to define their opponents, political analysts say. It's cheaper, and it spreads information more quickly. But so far, anyway, its potential for affecting a presidential campaign is relatively untested.

"Imagine if the Swift Boat group posted their ad on YouTube before airing it on TV," said Victor Kamber, author of "Poison Politics: Are Negative Campaigns Destroying Democracy?" "With the enthusiasm that these campaigns are drawing right now, it'll be easy to find supporters who can spread whatever they want to spread -- and make sure that their fingertips are not on it."

Kamber was referring to the TV ads aimed at discrediting Sen. John F. Kerry's war record four years ago. Relatively few of the ads actually ran, but they were frequently rebroadcast on news and cable shows. On the Web, the ads had relatively little impact -- after all, YouTube, which popularized video sharing, wasn't born until February 2005.

On sites such as YouTube, humor, originality and, most of all, creativity are rewarded, setting a relatively high bar for getting noticed but opening up the possibilities of poking fun at opponents -- or possibly smearing them -- to virtually anyone.

"The key, of course, is coming up with material that's funny, racy and special enough to capture people's attention," Kamber said.

Online negative campaigning dates back at least to 2000 and the e-mail chains that attacked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Vice President Al Gore. But there are far more weapons today. "You have to go multimedia when you're attacking now," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a longtime campaign expert who has studied negative ads. "Send an e-mail, embed a YouTube video, send a link to your site. It's much more sophisticated."

On the Web the technology is relatively simple, and it can be difficult to trace a blog or a video. Though Romney's campaign was linked to a site attacking former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), it was quickly taken down, and the bulk of attacks so far have been launched by amateurs, who are usually able to remain anonymous.

"Campaigns have no control on what's already out there and what will get out there," said Joe Rospars, new-media director for the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).


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