Washington Matters


Internet Becoming Tool of Choice for Negative Politics

Social networking sites are giving opposition researchers a whole new field to play in.



The growing popularity of Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks, and, of course, the Internet in general, is helping political dirty tricksters reach new heights -- or depths. And if you think this midterm election cycle was especially active, just wait until the jockeying for 2012 gets under way. Oh, by the way, that begins even before the smoke from this go-around clears.

To say there's a bright side and a dark side to politicking by way of the Web is an understatement.

WhiIe candidates use it to raise large amounts of campaign contributions from mainly small donors, tricksters see it as a good way to put opponents in a negative light. With the electorate so evenly divided, and with so many races supertight, swaying even a few votes can help determine an outcome.

Impressions gleaned from the Web can have a big impact on voters, since more than half of them now use the Internet to get political news and information.

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This election season, both Democrats and Republicans put up scores of "hit" sites, designed to smear opponents with half-truths and air their dirty laundry.

Also in vogue: Pushing negative stories high up on search engine listings of stories and sites about candidates. The technique, known as "Google bombing," is seen as a highly effective strategy to disrupt opponents' campaigns.

One of the forerunners of political Google bombing is the liberal-leaning Daily Kos website. It has started a campaign to drive negative articles about Republicans high up on the search results for GOP candidates.

"Here at Daily Kos, we are going to engage in a very different, but still very important, form of election activism. It is a type of activism that no one else is working, and it is well suited to our medium," explains Chris Bowers, the site's political director.

"It's a grassroots-based search engine optimization," he adds. Kos urges its members to conduct research to find damaging articles about Republican House candidates online and then post those Web links to a special website, since any mention of an article anywhere on the Web is counted in the search engines' ratings.

"As a result of this, not only is it possible for us to use our hyperlinks to impact what people find when they search for information on candidates, but we would be foolish not to do so in a way that benefitted our preferred candidates," Bowers says.

Look for Kos' lead to be followed by others as the battles for 2012 heat up. "I wish we had thought of that," a conservative blogger notes.

"One of the most common political activities people [do] online is to use search engines to find information on candidates," says Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of ReputationDefender.

"That ever-powerful, first page rap sheet of search engine results changes the game and the popular vote for candidates. Just as with job candidates, suitors or the lawyer you are looking to hire, we're a society that relies strongly on Google due diligence in the decisionmaking process," he adds.



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