Political smears thrive online

SAN FRANCISCO (03/24/2004) - The latest wave of in-box attacks isn't coming from the Bagle worm or Netsky virus -- it's from supporters of President George Bush and Democratic front-runner Senator John Kerry.

Earlier this month, the Bush-Cheney camp attacked in-boxes with e-mail to more than 6 million supporters, inviting them to preview an ad accusing John Kerry of planning to raise taxes by US$900 billion if he wins the White House. The e-mail includes a plea to forward the message to recipients' friends.

Kerry fired back with e-mail to more than 600,000 supporters asking them to view a 30-second video ad that contains Kerry's response. This e-mail also urges recipients to forward the message to ten friends.

Let the e-mail begin

With eight months until the general election, the battle of attack ads has begun. This year, the pounding isn't limited to prime-time TV ads. Political observers say the Internet for the first time in election history is being considered a viable broadcast medium.

"Mostly it's preaching to the choir," says Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, a political advertising watchdog group. But he says ads sent via e-mail have a natural multiplier effect. "Recipients can forward them to their friends and colleagues," he says.

Thanks to broadband ubiquity, even video ads can run on millions of PCs at a fraction of the cost of television ads. And if viewers like what they see, they're only clicks away from joining a campaign or donating money.

Both Democrat and Republican supporters hope the Internet can do for attack ads what it has already done for raising money and organizing supporters, says Fred Wertheimer, president of government watchdog Democracy 21. "It's far too early to tell what impact the Internet will have on the election, but we are watching very closely."

Rhetoric runaround?

The Internet also offers something TV can't offer: freedom from the usual rules. Federal election rules do not apply to the Internet, allowing candidates' supporters to skirt some of the newly enacted rules, says Ian Stirton, spokesperson for the U.S. Federal Election Commission.

One new rule requires television and radio commercials promoting a specific candidate to include a statement by the candidate endorsing the ad's message. That's why Kerry includes "I'm John Kerry, and I approve this message" in his political commercials. This tagline is required since 2002, with passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign law. The idea behind the provision is to keep candidates from running negative ads anonymously by forcing a personal association between the candidates and any controversial claims.

As a result, "the edgier ads will move to the Internet," says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. Ads that appear on television will still be negative, but less so, she says.

The Bush-Cheney camp was the first in a presidential race to put out a Web-exclusive advertisement, which appeared February 12. The ad, called "Unprincipled," took a swipe at Kerry's acceptance of "special interests'" donations. Naturally the Kerry camp responded in kind. Absent from the Bush ad is "I'm George Bush, and I approve this message," which accompanies all of the Bush-Cheney TV spots.

The Bush-Cheney campaign won't comment on why the ad lacks an endorsement from Bush. But the "Unprincipled" ad was "extremely popular" after broadcast media started running news stories about it, says Chuck DeFeo, e-campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney Web site. In just the past week alone, 1.5 million people logged on to view one of the campaign ads posted on GeorgeWBush.com, he says. DeFeo notes that traffic to the ads is also driven by e-mail sent to the 6 million registered site visitors, and by people who were forwarded the alerts by Bush supporters.

Net and attacks: A potent mix

The Kerry camp's Morra Aarons, director of online campaigning for JohnKerry.com, says Kerry will continue to endorse all his online-exclusive ads. "We feel it's important that the candidates stand by their messages," Aarons says. Kerry has aggressively defended himself and gone on the offensive, accusing Bush of "misleading America" in a recent ad. In all of Kerry's campaign messages, online or on TV, the senator says "I'm John Kerry, and I approve this message."

Still, the reach of e-mail pales in comparison to prime-time TV ads that are viewed by any voter. But Darr says email's viral nature makes up for what a Web site lacks in reach.

"The person most able to sway your vote one way or another isn't a campaign ad on TV; it's your friend," Darr says. In this respect, e-mail can be a very potent way to get your candidate's message heard, she says. "The edgier the message in the ad, the more likely you'll forward it to a friend," she says. Attack ads are like crude jokes, she says -- people love to pass them around.

Other options online

You won't hear Kerry's support in the latest ad put in circulation on the Internet by the Democratic-leaning online group MoveOn.org. It features a polygraph test that jumps into action indicating lies are being told as a voice-over of President Bush talks about the threat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed to the United States.

MoveOn.org ads don't require endorsements by candidates because it and similar groups are so-called 527 committees. The 527 refers to a section of the tax code that applies to these political groups, which support issues, not candidates. They therefore don't have to adhere to the same campaign guidelines.

More important, these 527 groups can accept large, unregulated donations that far exceed a $2,000 limit per election imposed on candidate-specific organizations. MoveOn.org has raised $10 million so far for advertising, according to published reports. It uses the money partly to distribute and promote dozens of anti-Bush ads online and raise money to buy commercial spots on broadcast cable and TV networks.

The conservative group GrassFire.org is another issue-driven group founded by self-described conservative Steve Elliott. He says GrassFire.org recently sent 300,000 e-mail invitations to his Web site regulars to view an ad that calls Massachusetts senators Kerry and Ted Kennedy "opponents to conservative values." GrassFire.org says it hopes 1 million people will view this ad online.

"GrassFire is part conservative-issue resource center and part viral marketing for conservative causes," Elliott says.

One of the most brazen attacks against Kerry comes from the conservative group Citizens United, headed by former Republican congressional aide David Bossie. It has aired a MasterCard ad parody picturing Kerry alongside Kennedy: "Another rich, liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people. Priceless." The ad, broadcast on television, is also online. Parked at Citizens United's Web site, the ad is accompanied by a plea to forward an e-mail link to the Kerry "Priceless" commercial.

Internet influence

The real test is whether the Internet -- attack ads or not -- can deliver votes, says Wertheimer, of Democracy 21. He and other political observers remain skeptical that distributing negative ads on the Net will sway voters in this election.

But if a recent report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is any indication, we may see our in-boxes become ground zero for political attacks as Election Day draws closer.

A recent study by the group reveals one-third of Americans say they regularly or sometimes learn political news from the Internet. That's an increase of 9 percent since the last presidential election.

If it gets to be too much, campaign-weary Internet users can just update their spam filters to block "Kerry" and "Bush."

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