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The Industry Standard

June 23, 2000, 11:07 AM PDT

Net Election: Dirty Deeds and How to Deal With Them

Online dirty tricks might be new, but political campaigns are already planning countermeasures.

By David Ross

 


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Election dirty tricks are as American as apple pie. Thomas Jefferson's political opponents planted stories about him fathering children with his slaves. In 1968, Ed Muskie's enemies planted stories about his wife that made him burst into tears on national TV. And then, of course, there was that "third-rate burglary" that initiated the Watergate scandal.

So how long will it take before Internet campaigning in U.S. elections gets really down and dirty?

According to Mark Modzelewski, a former political operative who worked on both Clinton presidential campaigns, it already has. "I've seen Web sites hacked, fake spam e-mail sent, even heard of a guy using a Taser to fry some PCs," he says. "I've been part of discussions where I was asked as to the feasibility of sending a virus to other campaigns – nothing came of it," says Modzelewski, who takes pains to mention that he never participated in any of these activities.

In Russia, it's already happened. During the most recent presidential campaign, Gleb Pavlovsky, fondly known as Vladimir Putin's "Dick Morris," mounted a campaign against Putin's opponents. Pavlovsky destroyed Putin's opponent, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, by using Web sites to spread lies and rumors that were reported by the media as news.

Anticipation of such activity in the States has already spurred an "arms race" among political consultants and campaigns. Silas Deane is a Web development and public relations consultant in Nashville who represents one congressional candidate and a possible gubernatorial candidate in the 2002 elections. "We've spent a good deal of time thinking about all the potential negatives out there, not only now, but two years from now," he says. "We've been forced to spend a great deal more time and money now than we originally anticipated to buy negative and positive URL names (Name of Candidate Sucks.com) and [take] other preventative measures."

Defining a dirty trick is difficult. Last year, Philadelphia's District Attorney Lynne Abraham declined to prosecute a man who directed reporters to a Web site that labeled Democratic mayoral candidate John White Jr. a racist. The man turned out to be a friend of the deputy campaign manager of White's opponent.

But what about Matt Drudge's release of e-mail addresses accidentally sent out by Hillary Clinton's campaign? Could that be called dirty? Or the meta-jacking by John McCain's campaign, which caused a Web search for George W. Bush to direct surfers to McCain's site because McCain's site contained many of the same meta tag search terms?

Constitutional protections of free speech seem to protect these activities. At least that was the explanation Abraham offered in Philadelphia when she referred to the White case as a "murky area." "The central issue is whether what happened was a violation of the law. Did a crime actually occur? Apparently not," she was quoted as saying.

Although federal election statutes don't address Internet issues, it is still considered pretty underhanded to, say, use e-mail or the Internet to appear to be raising money for one candidate when you're raising it for another. As is tampering with online memberships or contributions. This might occur if candidate Jones is pro-choice and so is candidate Smith, the opponent. In order to tar Jones as having ties to anti-abortion groups, Smith's handlers could contribute online to an anti-abortion group in the name of Jones. Silas Deane's organization protects against this by processing donations manually.

Campaign sites are also vulnerable to being hacked and having position papers altered. "Say somebody alters a few words in a gun control platform. That could have an amazing effect," says Modzelewski.

Deane's organization forestalls such attacks with an internal firewall and a front page that they can post after an attack to redirect the visitor to a sister site. According to the creators of the new Republican Convention Web site, which opened June 15, Web campaigners need to be vigilant but not paranoid. "We've made sure all those gates are locked," says Steve Rockman of Tierney/Digital, the interactive division of the Tierney PR firm in Philadelphia.

Tierney/Digital brought in the Computer Emergency Response Team of Carnegie Mellon University, which monitors Internet skullduggery, to assess its computer security. " As a result of their activities, we feel cautiously confident," says a Web design staff member at Tierney.

But while the major campaigns beef up on security, state and local organizations remain especially vulnerable to attacks, according to Geoff Patnoe, who describes himself as a "recovering political consultant." Patnoe, who has handled several campaigns in California, says state and local campaigns tend to be less sophisticated and have fewer resources to battle what might in some cases be called e-terrorism. He says, "I've been privy to many ways the Internet and especially e-mail has been used to influence a campaign, a candidate and even reporters covering political campaigns."

David Ross is a freelance journalist who edits The Roadrunner, a weekly newspaper in San Diego (Calif.) County.

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