Coming soon to a polling station near you — or at least a computer screen — may be some of the blackest and newest arts of American politics.
The latest weapons in the campaign for control of Congress, known by names such as Google bombing and Wikipedia vandalism, have been deployed to varying effect in the US elections, which are more reliant than ever before on such techniques.
British political parties are also taking notice of the freedom that cyberspace gives politicians for filthy fighting.
The Conservatives recently dispatched Tim Montgomerie to study the impact that technology is having on US politics. The former Tory aide, who now runs his own website, told The Times that he had been impressed by how Internet communities “did the dirty work for the Republican Party”.
Speculation about why Matthew Doyle — a Downing Street adviser — was in Washington last weekend was answered when he said that his was a private trip to run in the Marine Corps marathon. However, it is understood that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also studying the American experience.
They may have seen how Democrat bloggers have been busy “Google bombing” to ensure that unflattering articles appear high up in the results for anyone searching the names of about 50 Republican candidates. This has already been used to ensure that anyone typing in the words “miserable failure” into the search engine are directed to the biography of George Bush on the White House website. Republicans have sought to counterattack by linking the same phrase to former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore, the film-maker.
Bloggers on MyDD.com are now refining the technique by flooding the web with references to target candidates and repeating the same hyperlink to a specific news article.
If the plan works, searching Google for “Jon Kyl” will produce a link to an April 13 article from the Phoenix New Times that says he has “spent his time in Washington kowtowing to the Bush Administration and the radical Right”.
At the same time, YouTube.com is being used as a dumping ground for political adverts deemed too tasteless for TV. One of these — featuring Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State in Bill Clinton’s White House, changing a terrorist’s tyre and painting Osama bin Laden’s cave — has been viewed 700,000 times.
YouTube has also been used to disseminate videos of candidates filmed by staff working for their rivals. Conrad Burns, the Republican Senator for Montana, has been shown nodding off in a meeting on agriculture, discussing his “little Guatemalan” gardener and cautioning that taxi- drivers may be terrorists. George Allen, the Republican Senator for Virginia, became so irritated by being filmed that he insulted the dark-skinned cameraman with the racially charged word “macaca”. The resulting video has been viewed 71,000 times on YouTube.
Some observers have pointed out the beneficial effects of YouTube, saying that it allows negative adverts screened locally to be viewed nationally, embarrassing the party leadership.
But any sense of shame has not stopped political activists, including many staffers working on Capitol Hill, from repeatedly vandalising Wikipedia, the web-based encyclopedia that allows users to edit entries. For instance, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd’s age was altered from 86 to more than 100, while Congressman Jim Marshall was accused of “stabbing hapless constituents in the back”.
Some candidates have complained that their campaign websites have been made to crash after being overwhelmed by viruses or with “fake traffic” from their opponents.
Senator Joe Lieberman, who is now standing as an Independent after losing the August Democratic primary in Connecticut, has pointed accusing fingers at the campaign by Neil Lamont, his rival, for allegedly organising such an attack on the eve of the election.
GROVELLING IN THE DIRT
• A doctored photograph circulated in 2004 and picked up by media in the UK and US, showed John Kerry, the presidential candidate, on stage at a 1970s antiwar rally with Jane Fonda, the actor and activist. The two did not appear at the same rally
• In the previous election, a Republican television advert flashed the word “RATS” over an image of Al Gore, leading to allegations of sublimal advertising
• The 1972 election, a landslide victory for Richard Nixon, was one of the dirtiest. Democratic offices received vast, unsolicited deliveries of pizza, pastries and liquor, for which they had to pay, and were forced to entertain delegations from more than a dozen embassies who had received bogus invitations
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