Digital mudslinging is now a prominent feature of politics, says Ollie Christophers, who reports what happens when the blogs of war are unleashed.
In the wake of last year’s council by-elections, Lib Dem candidate Barry Smith was ‘abused, threatened and spat at’ following accusations of paedophilia. These horrific claims were made by none other than his political opponent for the marginal seat of Leyton in Greater London, Labour’s Miranda Grell.
Grell has since stepped down from the Labour Party after being banished from the seat she won with a mere 28 votes having lost the appeal against her conviction for breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. Mr Smith has a 39 year old Malaysian partner, yet Ms Grell has been found guilty of telling constituents that Mr Smith had a 14 year old Thai boyfriend while she was out canvassing their vote.
Mr Smith had to move away from the area where he had been a councillor for many years as a result of the damage done by Ms Grell’s comments, despite the fact that she has now been held accountable for her actions.
But what happens when you can’t find out who to make accountable? When there’s no one to retract their statement, to take to court for libel damage, to even respond or back up their comments? Welcome to the new political arena.
The traditional media has an author, a journalist or a presenter commentating on events; in short a tangible being to attach the words we see and hear to, but the new media is a completely different ball game. Today any Dom, Nick and Gary can log on and become whoever they want. While this is a valuable outlet for people who lack confidence in the real world and need a mask to hide behind, there is a very sinister side to it all as well. In the case of Grell and Smith there was someone to take to task for their actions, but now when the closest you can get to finding out who is slating you is an IP address, where do you go from there?
With the increasingly partisan nature of the traditional media, people are being forced to go underground to hear political viewpoints that may correspond with their own. Already political blogs have become a huge arena for discussion between members of the public on issues that are important to them. However with the rise of citizen journalism, we have inadvertently lost the cultural filters that safeguard the general public from unsubstantiated mudslinging that really isn’t worthy of publicity.
One huge assumption here is that the people writing the blogs really are ‘Joe Bloggs’, but due to the anonymity of the internet we just don’t know. It could be anyone from your next door neighbour to Alastair Campbell.
Already in the forthcoming presidential elections in the USA we are seeing new lows for dirty politics. Whispers about Hillary Clinton’s sexuality started on some underground blog sites and since then have been picked up by the mainstream media. While the mainstream media is not pointing any fingers or making any accusations because the claims are outlandish and would be attributable to a specific journalist, the online forums are going to town on what they are saying, just because they can. Clinton has fallen foul of a viral smear campaign where details of her ‘sexuality’ have been sent to inboxes all over America.
Things don’t seem much better for her main opponent, Barack Obama, who has been at the centre of accusations of Islamic fundamentalism. The original source of these claims was ‘Insight magazine’, a Washington DC based publication, but it soon went national when it was picked up by the Fox News Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch. While there were some truth to the claims made by ‘Insight magazine’, the snowball effect of what was being said was amplified massively by the online media, allowing people to turn allegations into ‘truths’ about Obama (or Osama as he was subsequently dubbed). Irresponsibly broadcasting speculation with no real background research is a disappointing but increasingly frequent move by the American media.
Sadly we are far from immune to this sort of thing in the UK. Although it isn’t as vicious as we have seen in the States, good old Blighty is beginning to fall foul of the Americanisation of politics. At a national level the youth are at least taking an interest in party politics again, even if it is only via the Facebook sites they join, where the personality of the party leaders is put under close scrutiny instead of the party and its policies. With our news media outlets on the whole upholding a decent standard of quality and impartial reporting, the media that young voters are more inclined to interact with feature popular groups to join such as “Stop David Cameron…his lies make the baby Jesus cry.” And “Gordon Brown does a funny mouth wobble every time he finishes a sentence!” This can hardly be described as a melting pot of reasoned debate.
While in these cases the creators do appear to be members of the public, there is no guarantee of this; it’s not exactly a challenge to create an online profile these days. The majority of these groups seem to be poking fun at the political mainstream, but there is the potential for so much more. Already at the local level we have seen Facebook be used for much more sinister ends. The group “Norman Lamb (North Norfolk Lib Dem MP) Accountablilty Society” has been used not just to criticise the MP, but to insinuate criminal activity during the 2005 General Elections. He is accused of smearing his Conservative opponent Iain Dale by having his campaign team phone round Conservative voters to ‘inform’ them of his sexuality.
In response to this, fingers have been pointing left, right and centre at who the possible author could be and one of the fingers ended up directed at Iain Dale, which has in turn been greeted by another metaphorical finger. Mr Dale, a presenter on internet TV station 18 Doughty St, has vehemently denied any input into the comments made about Norman Lamb. Even in the face of misplaced accusations of mudslinging due to the lack of an author, he still maintains a balanced view on the use of the internet for political debate. “Anonymity is both a boon and curse on the internet. It allows people to participate in debates who otherwise couldn’t, but it also allows anonymous trolls, bullies and smearers to peddle their filth.”
On one occasion, the real author of a smear campaign was very publicly unmasked. On the launch day of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, a parody appeared on YouTube entitled ‘Al Gore’s Army of Penguins’. In this clip, we see a penguin Al Gore preaching about global warming to a group of bored penguins, who eventually fall asleep only to be woken up and hypnotised by Gore on the dangers of climate change. This apparently amateur footage managed to appear above An Inconvenient Truth when Gore’s name was searched for using Google. Perplexed by this, the Wall St Journal decided to look into its authorship. The amateurs behind this were in fact found to be using a computer registered to the DCI group, a PR and lobbying firm ‘led exclusively by Republican Party members’. Furthermore, some of the DCI Group’s high profile clients include General Motors and Exxon Mobil. While the IP address has been traced back, no one has been willing to comment on this matter and as the new ‘dog ate my homework’ excuse is fast becoming ‘it must have been a rogue employee’.
Despite continued efforts to professionalise the PR industry by the likes of the CIPR and PRSA, it is really down to the individuals to keep a check on their ethics, but when there is no one to monitor and safeguard standards, can we really rely on politics and big business to use self discipline? Sadly while the sort of behaviour continues unchecked by regulation or conscience, it’s us the voters who lose out on balanced, fair and clean elections and until that day, the blogs of war are on the rampage.
Miranda Grell vs Barry Smith
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7006231.stm ‘Councillor slurred election rival’
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6992435.stm ‘Councillor accused over ‘slurs”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/6993949.stm ‘Anti-gay accused ‘is plot victim’ ‘
Hillary Clinton vs Barack Obama
‘Snarls, smears and innuendo for Hillary Clinton as attack dogs get ready for the fray’
http://www.insightmag.com/Media/MediaManager/Obama_2.htm ‘Hillary’s team has questions about Obama’s Muslim background’
David Cameron vs Gordon Brown
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2212501396 ‘Stop David Cameron… his lies make baby Jesus cry’
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=5262088251 ‘Gordon Brown does a funny mouth wobble every time he finishes a sentence!’
Norman Lamb vs Iain Dale
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2308748068 ‘Norman Lamb (North Norfolk Lib Dem MP) Accountablilty Society’
The quote from Iain Dale is one that he sent me to use in an email, which I can forward if needed.
Al Gore vs. DCI Group
Image credit: www.freeimages.co.uk