Looking for state Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s personal website? It's not jeffwentworth.com, an attack site that blasts the 20-year San Antonio incumbent as “the most liberal Republican senator in Austin.”
Want to know what Ted Cruz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, says on Twitter? Don't follow @RealTedCruz, which calls the former state solicitor general a “trial lawyer standing with a Chinese conglomerate to kill American jobs.”
Straddling the line between dirty tricks and political strategy is as old as elections. And campaign impersonation dates at least as far back as the 1970s, when Donald Segretti, President Richard Nixon’s re-election operative, forged letters seeking to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie — a move that landed Segretti in prison.
But social media sabotage is in high gear in Texas’ later-than-usual primary, from fake Twitter feeds to deceptive website domains to allegations of email and Facebook forgery.
There are vickitruitt.org, paulworkman.org, robeissler.org and chuckhopson.org, all attack sites designed to look like the personal sites of state Reps. Vicki Truitt of Southlake, Paul Workman of Austin, Rob Eissler of The Woodlands and Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, all incumbent Republicans. The sites are financed by Truitt and Workman's primary opponents, a home schooling advocacy group and a conservative political action committee, respectively.
There is @FakeTedCruz, a parody Twitter account that paints Cruz as a junk-food-bingeing, beer-guzzling loafer, and @RealTedCruz, which lobs negative attacks from the campaign arsenal of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican who is also running to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
And last month, a state House race in Tarrant County erupted with accusations of fake emails and Facebook impersonation, apparently intended to malign a member of the campaign staff of Chris Turner, a Democratic contender and former state representative from Arlington.
The tactics have infuriated some longtime lawmakers who have become targets, like Wentworth, who said the fact that the conservative group Empower Texans and its partner project Texans for Fiscal Responsibility are operating jeffwentworth.com amounts to “identity theft.”
Michael Quinn Sullivan, the organizations’ president and chief executive, said in a statement that if “politicians don’t like their voting records and statements being made known to the public, they should seek to improve their voting records, not hide from the facts.”
But Wentworth said the site is a complete deception, starting with its use of a domain that most would believe belongs to his campaign. “It’s very misleading,” he said. “There ought to be some law against using my name, your name, on a website that isn’t yours.”
The reality is, there isn't, said Eric Menhart, a Washington-based Internet and domain-name lawyer. While commercial enterprises are often entitled to reclaim their domains — say, if Coca-Cola purchased Pepsi.com — “folks who are in the political vein are generally not going to be afforded those protections,” he said. “It’s a free-speech issue.”
Part of this season’s heightened social media warfare can be explained by election timing and the redistricting battle that pushed this year’s primary into late May, and the runoff into July, said Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic political consultant. “If I were running a down-ballot race in a low-turnout primary in a weird time of year, I would want to use every tool to reach hyper-partisans, to get inside their tight social networks,” he said.
But don't expect the battles to fizzle out in future election cycles. Social media strategists and the special-interest groups increasingly involved in primary politics see no problem with the phony Twitter feeds, and generally think that candidates who don't own their own web domains are asking for opponents to snatch them.
“If these guys are concerned about it, they should go out and buy up all the potential domain names to prevent it from happening,” said Tim Lambert, whose Texas Home School Coalition PAC is financing robeissler.org, an attack site aimed at unseating the chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “This is the 21st century. It’s where campaigning is going.”
While almost all campaign operatives engage in these strategies, they admit there is little evidence that they sway voters. Polling by the Eppstein Group, a Republican political consulting firm, has found that 18 to 20 percent of statewide Republican primary voters actively use Facebook; for Twitter, the number is far lower.
“I see enough Google analytics on the actual candidate websites to know they’re not getting that many hits, and it’s going to be even less for the fake sites,” said Craig Murphy, an Austin-based Republican consultant.
Campaign operatives lump social media impersonation into three categories — what's fine, what straddles the line and what is indefensible.
The phony Twitter accounts are obviously parodies, they say, and are widely regarded as such. The individual behind @FakeTedCruz, who requested anonymity in order to continue to operate the Twitter feed discreetly, said the account is “all psychology, just a way to get someone off of their game.” But the individual acknowledged that it is more entertainment for the political audience than a tool to sway average voters.
Impersonating candidates on Facebook or on email to damage their reputations falls on the opposite side of the ethical spectrum, candidates and strategists agree: It's wrong and possibly illegal.
There is less consensus on attack websites that appear to be a candidate’s own. Tyler Hargrave, the social media director for the Eppstein Group, which represents candidates including Hopson, Truitt and Wentworth, said special-interest groups and political action committees are “assuming someone’s identity, taking a candidate’s name and hijacking that URL, which is directly intending to mislead someone.”
But Will Franklin, a web strategist who managed digital media for Gov. Rick Perry from early 2009 through his winning 2010 bid for governor, said buying up an opponent’s URL is fair game. Franklin has been on the other side: He recalled the Perry campaign’s unsuccessful struggle a few years ago to acquire rickperry.com from an undisclosed owner. (The campaign does operate rickperry.org.)
“Some of these candidates are almost inviting squatters to sit on their real estate,” he said. “I don’t think you can claim to be the victim when you’ve neglected to tend to your own brand.”
The branding wars have gone beyond political campaigns, and in some cases, beyond social media.
According to AgendaWise, a conservative web-based organization, Twitter froze the group’s accounts — and those of Empower Texans — for a few days in July, a move AgendaWise attributed to Executive Director and former Empower Texans staffer Daniel Greer’s acquisition of Twitter handles related to StateImpact, a National Public Radio endeavor funded in part by liberal philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. AgendaWise operates nprstateimpact.com, an attack site that calls StateImpact “an effort to shift public opinion to the left.” (Greer, who says on his Twitter bio that he is “addicted to buying domains,” has registered the domain for thetexastribune.org; in 2011, The Texas Tribune received a contribution from the Open Society Institute, since renamed the Open Society Foundations.)
AgendaWise didn’t respond with pleasure when the tables were turned. After Mark McCaig, an attorney, Republican activist and opponent of the tort reform group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, filed as “AgendaWise” with the Texas secretary of state, he received a warning from the organization’s lawyer. “It isn’t until he uses our name that we get to sue him, something we have privately put him on notice about,” Weston Hicks, AgendaWise’s lead analyst, blogged on May 1.
McCaig said he did it for “the same reason they do it — for entertainment.”
“It’s just like what you see with the political campaigns on the Internet,” he added. “I was just playing their game.”
Hicks said when it comes to political activities, there are distinct differences between the three types of attacks — false, parody and accountability — and that only false ones should be off-limits. Parody and accountability “don’t involve pretending to be someone else or gaining trust for ulterior motives,” he said.
Hicks said AgendaWise routinely exposes false attacks, and doesn't engage in them. “Though we don’t participate in them, false political activities are like any lie,” he said, "they can be useful if they don’t get you in trouble.”
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