Brain Terminal

Character Assassination by E-mail

The Next Political Battlefield?

By Evan Coyne Maloney

The other day, I received an e-mail whose subject screamed in all-caps, "TOMMY HILFIGER RACIST STATEMENTS". Curious, I opened it and read this quote, which Hilfiger supposedly said on the Oprah Winfrey show:

If I'd known African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice. I wish these people would not buy my clothes, as they are made for upper-class white people.

Right from the start, I was skeptical. It's hard to imagine a businessman wishing for fewer customers. And it's unlikely someone would select the Oprah Winfrey show as a forum to disparage blacks.

Scoping Snopes

I went to the website, which bills itself as the "Urban Legends Reference Pages". According to Snopes, the Hilfiger story is entirely untrue, a fact to which Oprah herself testified: "Read my lips: Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on the show." But despite Oprah's attempt to set the record straight, this e-mail is still circulating nearly five years later. Lies die hard online.

Naturally, one wonders what motivated this smear. Could it have been a disgruntled former employee? A dissatisfied customer? A ruthless competitor? Any of those are plausible, but we'll probably never know; once an untruth is released into the wild, it takes on a life of its own, propelling itself around the Internet like a computer virus that exploits human psychology instead of software flaws. The originator of the scam can sit back comfortably, knowing that his or her identity will be forever obscured by the anonymity of the Internet.

Concocted quotes can make for compelling reading, especially if they're designed to elicit an emotional response. The intensity of the feelings generated by an e-mail determines the velocity at which it travels; the passion stirred is what gets people to press "Send". Therefore, because a rational dissection of fraud is less titillating than incendiary accusations, a clever hoax will always have a broader reach than an earnest rebuttal. And, because reading an e-mail requires far less effort than researching it, few will ever discover that they've been duped.

Thanks to the brutal efficiency of Internet communication, a residue of misimpression can be left on a large number of people in a short period of time. The damage done to the reputation of victims may never be completely repaired.

Scheming for a Take-Down

This has grave implications in the political realm. Because every politician has a set of opponents scheming for a take-down, the less scrupulous among them will always find an excuse to lie. Person-to-person lies, unassisted by technology, can be countered more easily, simply because they don't spread as fast. But disinformation spreading by e-mail--as Tommy Hilfiger can attest--is much harder to correct.

The Internet has already been used to assist with character assassination. According to Snopes, President Bush has been targeted a number of times; some of the lies circulated about the president include:

* He refused to sell his home to black people

* He waved at blind musician Stevie Wonder during a performance

* He has the lowest I.Q. of all presidents during the last 50 years

* He described rapper Eminem as "the most dangerous threat to American children since polio"

Such attacks will only increase as more and more Americans log on.

The Best Defense...

So, what's the defense against attacks like these? Political operatives need to take these hoaxes as seriously as they would any other attack. The campaign war-rooms set up to counter spin on a moment's notice now need to add cyberspace to their purview. But the top-down, one-to-many communications flow of campaigns won't be as effective in cyberspace. Instead, campaigns should fertilize online communities and engage them interactively.

Supporters should be deputized as members of the campaign's "truth squad". (I know, I know...stop snickering.) Their mission is to extinguish lies before they ignite and spread across ever larger portions of the Internet. Deputies can be the eyes and ears of the campaign, providing a ground-level view of the political terrain. If there's an uptick in a particular rumor, the campaign will detect it in the reports from the field. Deputies can receive communiqués from the campaign to help them respond to rumors, but they should also cross-pollinate their own ideas on mailing lists and message boards.

Deputies are equally important as word-of-mouth distributors of messages. Not only can they help spread the message, but they are in the best position to know whether a message resonates in the real world. They can tell what sticks and what doesn't. It's like having thousands of daily focus groups, minus the free sodas and double-mirrors. Deputies can coordinate nationally, but act locally: it's peer-to-peer politics, the retail politics of the post-broadcast age.

Internet users should be aware of resources like Snopes so they can investigate for themselves what they see online. But ultimately, users need to develop a healthier skepticism of what they read. After all, if you can't believe everything you read in The New York Times, then you certainly shouldn't believe everything you read in an e-mail sent to you and thirty of your distant friend's distant friends.

A Prediction

Throughout history, rumors, innuendoes and blatant lies have swayed votes. Now, with the Internet, there's a medium that allows messages to spread faster than ever before. While I can't say whether net-borne lies will change the outcome of an election, it's a safe bet that the Internet will be a key battleground in the 2004 elections.

Will a Hilfiger-style smear beset at least one candidate? Campaigns ignoring this possibility do so at their own peril.

Evan Maloney publishes his thoughts on the current political scene at


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