Political perils abound in online rumor hothouse

AP News
Posted: Apr 30, 2011 10:54 AM
Political perils abound in online rumor hothouse

How quaint: Candidate Bill Clinton's big weapon against political attacks in 1992 was an impressive new technology called the blast fax.

Fast forward two decades, and a president juggling three conflicts abroad and a budget crisis feels compelled to stand at the White House podium to swat at already-discredited questions about his place of birth.

The Internet hothouse, where accusations can fester and flourish regardless of merit, is forcing politicians of all stripes to take even marginal attacks more seriously and to respond more quickly and forcefully.

"In today's climate, you can be innocent and still go down simply because of the sheer tonnage of negative rumors," says Eric Dezenhall, an expert in crisis management. "Negative information need not be true. It just needs to be plausible and resonant."

It's a safe bet that every candidate considering a 2012 run for president or any other office is taking note of the resilience of the "birther" rumors about President Barack Obama even after the charges had been proved false.

"It's a sign of things to come," says Democratic strategist Karen Finney.

Because the Internet allows critics to perpetuate even discredited charges, she says, "It's created a completely different dynamic in the way information seeps through our culture."

Even over the past few years, the number of online sites trafficking in political accusation has multiplied, and "you don't put these genies back in the bottle," says longtime Democratic consultant Robert Shrum. "It's the new reality. It's the atomization of communication."

Candidates always have had to deal with rumors and innuendo, of course. But accusations that once could have been ignored or easily stamped out now have more staying power.

"Campaigns are going to have to have more fleet-footed SWAT teams to be prepared to knock down bad information and fight demagoguery with demagoguery, distasteful as it is," says Dezenhall. "You can't simply say this fact is wrong. It needs to be combated with symbols, with optics, with emotion."

Dezenhall, who worked in the Reagan White House, remembers a time in the summer of 1983 when false rumors began swirling of a sex tape involved high-ranking administration officials. When the accusers couldn't produce any evidence, the charges quickly melted away.

If the same situation arose today, says Dezenhall, "Somebody who claimed to have seen the tape would be on YouTube, or somebody would Photoshop something damaging."

Democrat Michael Dukakis, whose 1988 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush was weighed down by a series of unanswered attacks, says that while the rapid spread of negative information online poses new challenges for candidates, every generation of politicians has to learn the necessity of effectively countering attacks.

"The worst mistake of my political career, and it was a colossal failure, was that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign," he says. "You can't just sit there mute while people are going after you."

He recalled the distraction of false accusations that his wife, Kitty, had burned a flag at an anti-Vietnam War protest, and more damaging "Willie Horton" ads that criticized Dukakis for supporting a weekend furlough program under which a convicted killer raped a woman after he failed to return to prison. Dukakis says his support for the furlough program as Massachusetts government was a legitimate issue for political opponents to raise, but he didn't do enough to confront it head-on and explain why the program was justified.

"You'd better be equipped to deal with it," says Dukakis. "The Internet has added another dimension to this. But I don't think it's significantly more difficult to deal with."

Nonetheless, the durability of negative information on the Internet is forcing candidates and campaigns to come up with a new definition of victory: false charges can't be completely stamped out, only marginalized.

The negative information may still be out there, "but it doesn't necessarily have electoral consequences," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center. "That may be the best that you can expect to do."

Democratic consultant James Carville, a veteran of the Clinton campaign, says candidates have to hope that reasonable people will dismiss the significance of what he politely refers to as "Internet crap." People who are prone to believe crazy accusations against a candidate aren't likely to support that candidate anyway, he says.

"By and large in politics, people seek information out that validates their beliefs," says Carville.

Republican strategist Charlie Black, a key adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign against Obama, thinks it's still possible for candidates to ignore truly trivial charges and to rely on supporters to counter the marginal accusations. In the 2008 campaign, he said, critics questioning McCain's military record would pop up from time to time, and the campaign would rely on surrogates to knock them down.

He said Obama's decision to address the birther controversy personally and from the West Wing of the White House diminished the dignity of the presidency.

"Whenever possible, you have third parties answer the question and you keep moving," he said.

But Finney said that when campaigns are increasingly won on the margins, with a small percentage of voters determining victory or defeat, candidates would be foolish to ignore spurious charges that could sway even small numbers of voters. As a cautionary tale, she pointed to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's failure in the 2004 presidential campaign to respond effectively to a smear on the Democrat's service in Vietnam by an outside group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

"You've got to be very aggressive, and very quickly shut things down," she says.