Friday, October 23, 2009

March of the Sock Puppets

In light of the stream of howling wingnutty posters on the Times-Call story comments (and the anonymous cowardly attack sites) this story caught my eye. (hat tip to Tolo!)

Republicans Overtweet
Twitter shuts down 33 fake accounts created by state Republicans in an attempt to lambast Dems

By Gregory B. Hladky
Tuesday October 20, 2009 Hartford Advocate News

Barack Obama's victory last year left many Republicans bemoaning their party's ineptitude when it came to political exploitation of the Web. Democrats, they admitted, were far ahead in the art of using the Internet to seduce voters.

So Connecticut Republicans decided it was time to boldly forge into the 21st century, only to stumble when one of their decidedly deceptive experiments ran into trouble last week.

Twitter, Inc., shut down 33 fake Twitter accounts created by Republicans using the names of Democratic state representatives. The Republican scheme was to send out posts under the Democrats' names mocking the liberal tax-and-spend bastards.

"That's unfortunate," was state Republican Chairman Chris Healy's response when told of Twitter, Inc.'s decision. "I'm not quite sure what the issue is, other than that the Democrats were successful in stopping free speech."

Healy's party may have suffered a setback with the loss of its Twitter campaign, but Republicans are still operating the 33 Web sites they created using the names of those same Democratic lawmakers. As far as anyone knows, this is the first time any state party has used such a tactic to mock its state opponents.

"It's our idea, actually," said Healy. He said Republicans want voters to understand how badly they're being screwed by the Democrats who approved billions in new taxes rather than cut spending.

Healy has no intention of shutting those sites down just because of Democratic protests.

"They didn't think of it first, so that's why they're whining," Healy said.

But it's not only Democrats who say the GOP's Internet policies are misleading.

According to Twitter, Inc., the fake posts violated the immensely popular social networking system's anti-impersonation policy.

In an e-mail reply to a Democratic legislative leader's complaint, a Twitter representative stated:

"A person may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse or deceive others. ... Impersonation is against our terms unless it is a parody. The standard for defining parody is, 'Would a reasonable person be aware that it's a joke?' "

"Because this is not the case in your situation, we have removed the profile(s) from circulation."

"That's silly," Healy said of the decision. "That's not impersonation; that's satire."

Some of the targets of the fake Twitter messages disagree.

Matthew Lesser is a 26-year-old rookie Democratic lawmaker from Middletown who was one of the House legislators Twitterized by the GOP. He was also the first to ask Twitter to kill the GOP account using his name.

Lesser isn't surprised he was one of the Democrats chosen by the GOP.

"It's no secret I'm going to be a targeted Democrat next year," he said.

"Everybody knows Connecticut is a rough and tumble political world," Lesser said. "I support [Republicans'] free speech rights. ... The problem I have is when they cross the line between debate and impersonating opponents."

"It's hard enough to explain what we're doing here in Hartford," said Lesser. "It's even more difficult when you've got political hacks going out of their way to confuse people."

Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in the state House, outnumbering Republicans 114-37. The Democrats also have a 24-12 margin in the state Senate. Those numbers have been frustrating the hell out of GOP leaders, who have seen their share of General Assembly seats shrivel in successive legislative elections.

Their Twitter ploy may have misfired, but Connecticut Republicans aren't giving up on those 33 Web sites created in the names of the Democratic lawmakers. (The fake Twitter posts were linked back to those Web sites.)

All the sites use the same format. In the case of state House Speaker Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, the Republican-funded Web address is meetchrisdonovan.com. All the information on the site was produced by Republicans and is critical of Donovan. The only indication that it was paid for by the state GOP is in small print at the very bottom of the page.

Phillip Simon, director of the Graduate Interactive Communications program at Quinnipiac University, said his impression of the GOP-sponsored sites is that they are misleading.

"It is very deceptive," he said. "It doesn't say anywhere that it's being written by someone else."

Simon said all of the Republicans' anti-Democratic sites use "a lot of pre-made themes" and similar templates, which has dramatically cut down on labor costs for creating and updating the sites.

"Using these relatively low-cost tools to distribute information, whether in an appropriate or inappropriate manner, is going to happen more and more in politics," Simon said.

Rick Hancock is an assistant professor of online journalism and social media at the University of Connecticut who agrees with Simon.

"Personally, I don't think it's ethical," said Hancock, a veteran Connecticut TV journalist. "As a former political reporter, I think it crosses over into dirty politics."

Hancock said the Web sites, unlike those Twitter accounts, don't appear to violate any terms of services or legal restrictions.

Similar Web sites were created during the last presidential election by people on both sides of the political divide, according to Hancock, some spewing venom against the GOP's Sarah Palin, others targeting Obama.

"This is just one additional step," said Hancock.

But Hancock doesn't believe negative political tactics will completely poison the Internet's influence on politics. "I still think it's a positive, powerful tool," he said.

"The truth will eventually come out [about such ploys as the GOP's anti-Democratic sites]," Hancock added. He said the GOP scheme will backfire "if the Republicans are being viewed as playing dirty tricks, dirty politics."

Healy is unrepentant: "I really don't care what a bunch of college professors from liberal colleges think.

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