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Dirty Tricks, Version 2.0: E-Mail Sent to Friends

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The last-minute chain e-mails arrived with unsolicited primary voting advice. One alerted recipients to Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's "alarming" views about Israel, another challenged Republican Sen. John McCain's account of his Vietnam War service. Another alleged that Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton opposed the Civil Rights Act as a teenager, even though she did not.

Campaign dirty tricks found a new outlet before the Super Tuesday voting, as several misleading attacks on presidential candidates were spread via cautionary last-minute mass e-mails among friends. On Monday night, those messages started arriving in many inboxes with subject lines such as "FW: Something to consider before voting tomorrow."

In e-mails forwarded to The Washington Post, senders attacked Republican Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, and offered a misleading account of Obama's voting record in the Illinois Senate. Some were unsigned and impossible to trace.

"Clearly, the speed of delivery has enabled these last-minute attacks to become much more potent," said Peter Pasi, an executive of Emotive LLC, a firm specializing in online communication strategies.

Zephyr Teachout, a former director of Internet organizing for Howard Dean who now teaches law at Duke University, said: "What's different, even from four years ago, is that across-the-board people are using e-mail to talk about the election. . . . Because you're getting them from friends, they take on an air of authenticity."

Some of those sharing the e-mails did so innocently. Sherry M. Saffer, a Los Angeles lawyer, said that she sent a group of Jewish friends an e-mail about Obama that she received from her aunt in New York. The message, from the Republican Jewish Coalition, criticized an interview Obama gave in the French publication Paris Match in which he proposed organizing a summit of heads of state in the Muslim world.

The coalition's executive director then noted: "Nowhere in the Paris Match article does Senator Obama affirm Israel's right to exist. Nor does he condemn the repeated terrorist strikes against Israel -- the only stable democracy in the region."

The executive director, Matt Brooks, said last night that he stands by the e-mail.

But the Middle East was touched on only briefly in the interview. Denis McDonough, a top foreign policy adviser to Obama, said yesterday that the suggestion that Obama does not support Israel is "baseless, groundless and without merit."

McDonough added: "Barack has strongly condemned terrorist attacks against Israel, has strongly affirmed Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and just last week was firmly on the record urging our U.N. ambassador to veto any resolution out of the Security Council that did not condemn missile attacks on Israel from Gaza."

Saffer, who is not affiliated with any campaign and said she is leaning toward supporting Clinton, explained that she "assumed anyone who gets an e-mail would make their own independent investigation into the accuracy or inaccuracy of it."

As recently as two weeks ago, Obama was also the target of a widely distributed, unsigned and false e-mail message about his religion: "Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim." He is, in fact, a Christian. But the message circulated with advice that it was "something that should be considered in your choice."

Teachout, an Obama supporter, said the e-mail presented him with the difficult task of trying to "battle a ghost." "They're very difficult to respond to, because you don't want to engage the idea," she said.

Teachout said that such transactions are vexing to campaigns because they cannot track or combat a misleading message as it jumps around the country. "If you see a falsehood on television, at least you can go back to that same channel and try and correct it," she said. "Here, the channel disappears. The waves wash up the minute the ideas have been written in the sand."

Staff writer Michael Dobbs contributed to this report.

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