Web pranks reveal ‘new’ dirty side of politics

April 13, 2011

The internet has brought us many wonderful things. Cheap music. Scantily-clad women. Free electronic mail delivered by tiny elves.

But one of its greatest gifts may be what it reveals about our politicians, although not always in ways they’d hope. Once there was a time when we had to form our opinions of candidates based on scripted public appearances, news stories, or – heaven forbid – their platforms.

Anyone in politics today knows the web can be an incredibly powerful thing, a low-cost way to mobilize masses without expensive TV ads, radio spots and lawn signs. But when web campaigning brings out politicians’ worst partisan instincts, it can also backfire.

In the reveal-everything world of the internet, our politicians often come across as far more paranoid and desperate (and even a little childish) than we ever thought they were.

Where else would you buy a website named after your rival just to keep him or her from having it? In an increasingly digital election campaign, it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book.

In this federal election, the former chief of staff and executive assistant for Kitchener-Conestoga Conservative MP Harold Albrecht did one better. Jeff Chatterton bought the domain names of Albrecht’s Liberal rival and linked them to a political smear website.

Chatterton, now a volunteer on Albrecht’s campaign, bought the domain names Bobrosehart.ca and bobrosehart.com in February before Bob Rosehart was named the Liberal candidate in Kitchener-Conestoga.

Until he took them down at the request of his former boss on the weekend, both websites automatically linked to www.ignatieff.me, an anti-Michael Ignatieff page created by the Conservatives. The thinking goes, I suppose, that someone looking to learn more about Rosehart would be shocked by the clearly unbiased information on Ignatieff and vote Conservative.

It’s a trick Chatterton, who owns public relations firm Checkmate Public Affairs, has employed before. In September 2009, he registered the website www.teresahuegle.com, according to online records. Teresa Huegle was the riding’s Liberal candidate at the time.

The Liberals’ say they’re outraged over the fake websites – something Chatterton called “hypocrisy.” Tory candidates’ website names have been bought up by their rivals, too, he said.

True enough. The Ontario Liberal Party first registered www.mikeharris.com in 1998, around the same time the Progressive Conservatives bought the rights to www.daltonmcguinty.com, according to Christine McMillan, the Liberal party’s vice president of communications.

In politics today, if you don’t own the website rights to your rival’s name, apparently you’re not working hard enough.

This isn’t just a Liberal-Tory thing, either. No party seems to be above these childish games.

Grant Fraser, who ran as a Green Party candidate in the Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo riding, in 2004, admitted last week that he hijacked the website domain names of Liberal Murray Todd and Christian Heritage Party candidate Chris Kempling.

Fraser, who now works as a financial agent with the Greens, says he did it because the NDP candidate during the 2008 federal election, Mike Crawford, pulled the same prank on him. He set it up so that when anyone tried to access murraytodd.ca or chriskempling.ca, they were sent to Crawford’s old campaign site instead.

Fake websites are one thing. But then there’s the plain, old-fashioned online screw-ups, which are even harder to erase.

This week, Kitchener Centre Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth – a politician in a fight to keep his seat from former Liberal MP Karen Redman – dropped his Twitter account after a lapse in judgment Saturday night. He tweeted a joke about disabled people:

“Cop says to falling down man outside tavern ‘You’re drunk’ Man replies ‘Thank goodness’ Cop asks ‘Why?’ Drunk: ‘I thought I was crippled!’” he gleefully tweeted.

For his rival candidates, it was like a present dropped out of the sky. They pounced on the insensitive tweet, trying to make political hay. Woodworth, meanwhile, apologized but seemed baffled by the outrage.

The MP forgot the cardinal rule the Internet: you can’t hide anything anymore. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that when it comes to the politicians using the web, we may be learning more about them than we really want to know.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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