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.
The devastating impact last year of the "macaca" video on the Senate reelection campaign of George Allen (R-Va.) illustrated the kind of nightmare a candidate could face online. So far in 2007, the best example of a successful viral attack has been the March video targeting Clinton, inspired by an iconic 1984 Apple Computer commercial.
It casts the former first lady as the droning voice of totalitarianism, and it's one of many homemade YouTube videos ("Hillary Clinton Is Satan," "10 Things I Hate About Liberty, Starring Hillary Clinton") attacking her. A few days after the "1984"-themed anti-Clinton video was uploaded on YouTube, it was blogged, linked to and, weeks later, picked up by news organizations. It's been viewed more than 3.8 million times.
Phil de Vellis, who posted it anonymously before being identified by bloggers, came up with the idea while sitting in his Washington apartment. Its purpose, he said, was as clear as its title: "Vote Different." De Vellis was working for a Web design firm hired by the Obama campaign at the time, but he insists that he produced the video on his own.
"The video is effective because it says something that a lot of people, a lot of Democrats, are thinking but weren't saying. It hit a nerve," said de Vellis, 34, a lifelong Democrat who now works for a media company advising candidate Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor.
Clinton is not the only candidate under attack on the Internet. The Five Brothers blog, where Romney's sons share personal details about their family, has been widely parodied. Obama's biography on Wikipedia, the write-it-yourself encyclopedia, has been vandalized numerous times; anonymous editors have inserted racial epithets, and "Obama" has sometimes been changed to "Osama." For months, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) has had a YouTube problem. A New Yorker made a satirical video criticizing what he thinks is Giuliani's waning support on gay rights, and Brave New Films has regularly created ads, posted on its site and uploaded on YouTube, lambasting him.
Still, Clinton has been the biggest target by far, attacked by the left because of her centrist positions and by the right for her association with President Bill Clinton. Her campaign doesn't directly address the online hostility and points to the $8 million she raised online last quarter. Peter Daou, her Internet director, wrote in an e-mail: "Our campaign welcomes the diversity of views and vigorous debate that takes place online." But maybe not what Stephen DeMaura, then a senior at American University and now head of the New Hampshire Republican Party, started a month before the anti-Clinton "1984" video. DeMaura, 22, called it "Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary)," a play on the Facebook group "Barack Obama: (One Million Strong for Barack)," which has 392,000 members.
Or such Facebook groups as "ANTI Hillary Clinton for President '08," which has 65,000 members, and "Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich," which lists 20,000. DeMaura writes in the group's page: "Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can now unite behind a single cause -- that of ensuring Hillary Clinton is not elected President of the United States."
As of yesterday, DeMaura's group had 543,000 members, 10,000 more than the week before.
Glenn Hurowitz, a Democrat from D.C., is one of the group's newest members. A few weeks ago, the 29-year-old started Democratic Courage, a political action committee aimed solely at fighting Clinton.
"Fact is, the general population hasn't tuned in to this election yet, and the more people tune in, the more they'll know about Hillary Clinton, the less likely she'll get the nomination," said Hurowitz. "That's the beauty of the Internet. What might be bad for the candidates is good for people like me . . . trying to have an impact."
While the online animosity doesn't necessarily mirror the general public's view of Clinton -- she's solidified her lead in national polls, especially among Democratic voters -- it speaks to the extreme, love-her-or-hate-her reaction she evokes. In a recent Zogby poll, half of those surveyed said they would never vote for her.
As with anything to do with Clinton, the reasons are complicated.
Some argue it's plain old-fashioned misogyny, especially since studies have shown that the political Internet is largely male. "The idea of a woman being president really rankles some people, and there's nothing she can do right in the wake of that," said Jane Hamsher of the liberal blog Firedoglake, one of the most prominent female bloggers.
And others point to Clinton's distinctive history: As the highest-profile candidate in the race, she's been in the national spotlight longer than anyone.
"Remember the 'vast right-wing conspiracy' that Hillary Clinton talked about in the late '90s? Well, it's the 'vast right-wing conspiracy' gone online -- and then some," said Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute, a liberal think tank that helps Democrats take advantage of the Internet. "What the Web does so well is it picks up the early warning signals, the first glimmers of a movement. Think of the online world as kind of a more visceral connection to the zeitgeist."
If Clinton and Giuliani end up facing each other next November in the general election, "it will be like World War III on the Web," predicts Gregg Birnbaum, political editor of the New York Post and founder of JustHillary.com, an online aggregator of stories about the New York senator. "There's an enormous amount of historical material out there on both of them, and the virtual hand-to-hand combat would be something like we've never seen before," Birnbaum said. "All the videos, all the blogging -- all the Web allows."