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Anonymously spreading rumors on the internet

Over at the Scripps-Howard News Service, reporter Patrick Coolican has a story about the rise of anonymous attack blogs that promote rumors and innuendo about candidates. He interviewed me for the story:

One candidate is a racist, another has a hard-partying daughter and a third is a gambling addict. So say anonymous bloggers about three Nevada political candidates. The accusations offer a look at the rank armpit of politics on the Internet, a place where anyone can now set up a Web site under a pseudonym and fire away - hoping rumors will spread or get picked up by the mainstream press - like a technologically enabled whisper campaign.

"We're seeing it all over the country this election cycle," said Kari Chisholm of Mandate Media, an Internet strategy and consulting firm.

Is it really possible to stay completely anonymous? Sure, if the blogger is very smart, and very careful - using internet connections that are public, and services that don't require payment (and thus proof of identity):

But here's how someone linked to a campaign can spread false rumors about a political candidate: Go to blogger.com and set up a blog, which is an online diary. Use a pseudonym, and presto. Publish ludicrous accusations about a political opponent. Then send out an e-mail to thousands of people telling them about the blog. Hope the rumor spreads. Campaigns once tried to accomplish this with word-of-mouth marketing. The electronic kind is faster, more efficient, never diluted.

The next step is video and audio. The ease with which someone can make a short movie and upload it onto the Web makes it possible to launch an entire ad war against a candidate on the Web and do it anonymously.

So, how does a candidate respond? My advice -- ignore it. That's a risk, of course, but the credibility of these "drive-by bloggers" is usually self-apparent. On the other hand, a well-funded attack (that's usually not anonymous) can affect the outcome of an election.

Chisholm, the consultant, said he would advise candidates to ignore the charges. Be sure to keep tabs on them, but ignore them, lest they get a public airing.

Still, that won't always work. Voters have been known to believe charges that the accused chooses to ignore. Advisers to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democrats' 2004 candidate for president, blame his defeat on the campaign's silence two years ago in the face of false charges that Kerry fabricated his military record.

"I can imagine all kinds of scenarios where this could be a problem. It could get very ugly, very fast," Chisholm said.

Read the rest here, including a discussion of the legal issues at play.