I got my first Astroturf political spam comment today on my post on California mental illness legislation. The brief comment links to a press release signed by IPRWire founder and staunch Edwards Supporter Hans Schnauber, better known as The Butterfly Guy. Schnauber made the news in 1996 for registering domain names of big companies and then posting Web pages about how awful those companies have been for butterfly habitat.
The Kerry screed itself takes the well-known story of how Kerry discovered only last year that his grandfather was actually Jewish, and how he had taken his own life in 1921, probably due to financial difficulties. It then goes on to make the completely unfounded assertion that “According to sources, including The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, and Fox News, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has a family history of severe mental illness” and asks the ominous question “Will the American people vote for a candidate with a family history of mental illness and clinical depression?” Of course, the release doesn’t actually cite the news stories to which it refers, but given a a NetNews post by the author we can guess it refers to the original Boston Globe article and the Sun-Times and Fox News pick-ups, none of which ever mention the possibility of mental illness.
A little web-searching reveals that Hans is hyping the press release on NetNews, posting under the name “Day Bird Loft (email@example.com)” (see this post where “Loft” signs his post as “Hans”, and note that pigeons.ws points to the same base scripted website as iprwire.net). But in spite of hyping his story in numerous news groups (sometimes even replying to his own message), I’ve yet to see a response taking him to task for his self-promotion. Given that the NetNews is usually quite aware of spammers, I have to assume he’s gotten away with it for four days (a lifetime on the Net) because his posts are mostly hand-crafted, point to an official-sounding press account (most people don’t know PRWeb is a for-hire press-release wire service), and because he actually defends himself in the threads he posts to. I probably wouldn’t have investigated it either had his comment not been so clearly generated by a spam-bot that got tripped by keywords out of context.
What’s the moral of this story? Just another warning of what we already knew:
- The Net is a powerful tool for political messages
- It’s as easy to rumor-monger a lie as it is the truth
- On the Internet, no one knows you’re not a crowd
Update: Hans comments that he didn’t use a spam-bot, just “plain old fashion tech creativity.” It’s that kind of personal touch that’s missing so often from spam in this day of automation — I’m glad to see some craftsmen still put a little of themselves in their work.
From a purely strategic standpoint though, I have to wonder about the choice of mental illness as the hook for this smear campaign. The best whisper campaigns say out loud what people are already wondering. It doesn’t have to be true: Gore was an honest man but could be painted as dishonest because of his association with Clinton. (Of course, it helps even more if the rumor has truth to it, as was the case with Clinton.) But I haven’t seen anything in Kerry to make me think insanity; it just doesn’t connect emotionally. The story would have stuck much better to Dean I expect — people were much more willing to think he was unhinged, and there were already a lot more forces trying to spin him that way. Perhaps when the nomination is over Hans will explain his reasoning and we’ll be able to do a post-mortum on his one-man campaign.
- Mental Illness and Presidential Politics (Hans Schnauber, IPR Newswire, 21 February 2004)
- Butterfly zealot raises Time Warner’s ire (Wired News, 14 January 1997)
- Search For Kerry’s Roots Finds Surprising History (Michael Kranish, Boston Globe, February 2 2003) [archived at RootsWeb.com, scroll down for original English version]
- ‘Irish-American’ Kerry’s Jewish roots revealed (Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, February 9 2003)
- Sen. Kerry Learns of Jewish Ancestry (Fox News reprint of Associated Press story, February 3 2003)