June 8, 1999
Bush Shows How Not to Handle the Internet, Experts Say
By REBECCA FAIRLEY RANEY
hen a lawyer for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas filed a complaint with Federal regulators against a satirical Web site, he was just trying to protect Bush's image. But in the weeks since, the move has become a textbook case for campaigns on the wrong way to handle Internet critics.
The owner of the anti-Bush Web site, which is a parody of the official site for Bush's Presidential exploratory committee and has a similar Web address, says the publicity has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. The site received only a trickle of traffic before the committee made an issue out of it.
Also, Bush himself has been drawn into the conflict. During a news conference last month, he responded to a question about the site by saying "there ought to be limits to freedom" -- a remark that has become a rallying point for his online critics.
The developers of the parody site have played Bush's attacks to full advantage. The site's opening page now praises Bush as "the only candidate with the courage to take on excessive freedom on the Internet."
The Bush committee may have ended up in this online mess because its Internet component is being left to volunteers. To experts in Internet political strategy, this unschooled approach has led to errors with repercussions that could last for months.
"In a situation like this, it's a losing battle for them to engage the activists on their terms," said Matthew Benson, who handles Internet crises for Bivings Woodell, a public relations firm in Washington. "The more you come at a problem from an authoritarian standpoint, the bigger the problem becomes."
The Bush strategists, however, see no problem. From their perspective, the Internet has little potential to influence the outcome of an election, and paying for advice on how to handle the medium would be a waste.
"Even though we're the best financed of all the campaigns, we're not going to spend a lot of money on consultants if we can get volunteers," said David Beckwith, a spokesman for the Bush committee. "I'm a little nonplused by a couple of our competitors who think they're going to win by manipulating the Internet."
The Bush committee's complaint asks the Federal Election Commission to require that the site's owner file with the commission as a political action committee and report the Web site as a campaign contribution. Election laws require those who spend money to support or defeat a candidate to file contribution reports.
Zack Exley, a computer consultant in Boston who owns the site, said his supporters want to hold rallies to protest the Bush committee's move.
"We've been getting hundreds and hundreds of e-mails," Exley said. "Some people are saying, 'Is Bush trying to shut down the Internet?'"
The Bush committee took its first action against the site shortly after it was launched in April. The site's Web address, www.gwbush.com, is much like that of the official site, www.georgewbush.com, and in its first incarnation it looked much like the official site as well. The creators copied the banner, pictures and text from the official site and wrote their own commentary.
The committee's lawyer, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, sent Exley a cease-and-desist letter that called the site a "cavalier usurpation" of the official site, and said it violated copyright and trademark infringement laws.
Internet political consultants say that the actions of the Bush committee reflect a lack of sophistication in dealing with the Internet. ||
After receiving the letter, the designers of the parody site -- a loose-knit group of activists called RTMark who specialize in anti-corporate pranks -- changed the look of the site and made it more directly critical of Bush. Now, it offers a variety of satirical press releases, including an invitation to join an "Amnesty 2000" program in which "as President, Bush would pardon convicts who have 'grown up' but are still serving long sentences for possession of cocaine and other illegal drugs."
A few weeks after designers made the changes, Ginsberg filed the FEC complaint. The sentiment behind the complaint, Beckwith said, is that "if people want to profit or play politics, they have to play by the rules."
Internet political consultants, who develop methods of using the medium effectively for political communication, say that the actions of the Bush committee reflect a lack of sophistication in dealing with the Internet. The specialists say experience in the medium's brief history has already shown that trying to shut down critics online is a losing proposition.
"These are all lessons that have been learned already," said Robert Arena, co-founder of Presage Internet Campaigns, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. "What they did was step into a land mine."
Arena learned about the pitfalls of Internet campaigning as the Webmaster for Bob Dole's Presidential campaign in 1996. The Dole campaign faced a similar adversary: a somewhat malicious parody site with a Web address similar to that of the official campaign site (dole96.org vs. dole96.com).
Arena said campaign strategists went as far as to talk to lawyers about taking action against the site -- and decided against it. Instead, they did not even acknowledge the site's existence.
But by continuing to engage its online detractors, the Bush committee has created more problems, and Bush's comment about limits to freedom is not likely to be forgotten, Arena said.
"That is going to get used over and over and over again on a myriad of issues," Arena said. "And all for what? A couple of guys in a garage making a Web site that wasn't that bad."
The best tactic now, he said, would be for the committee to promote the official Web site by every means possible -- by giving out the site address in television commercials, radio ads and campaign literature. What Arena described as "the bully pulpit of a multi-million dollar ad campaign" should help any politician's official site prevail against detractors.
Another Internet consultant, Jonah Seiger, said the best way for organizations to deal with online critics is to ignore them, because they won't go away.
"Giving attention to a parody site like this only raises its profile," said Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns in Washington. "The power of the Net here is that every user has the power to reach everyone else."
Seiger said that the greater concern now for Internet users in general should be the FEC ruling on the Bush committee's complaint. A ruling in the committee's favor could chill political expression online if individuals needed to hire lawyers and accountants to meet regulatory requirements for their homemade political sites.
"Requiring sites like this to register [with the FEC] would set a dangerous precedent," Seiger said.
In the meantime, Exley is enjoying the publicity the parody site is receiving and planning to escalate the campaign against Bush.
"What Bush has given me is this forum," he said. "So I'm going to exploit that to the max."
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Rebecca Fairley Raney at email@example.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.