Harsh reality for hopefuls: You are what you tweet
Date: May 5, 2011
By: Jennifer Martinez
Link: Online Story
Harsh reality for hopefuls: You are what you tweet
Potential candidates are hiring Internet scrubbers these days to clean up their online images before they even declare candidacy.
Online reputation management firms that already do big business in the corporate world are being hired by campaigns to monitor and manage candidates’ online brands. Integrity Defenders President Alan Assante said politicians, including state senators and members of Congress, now make up about 15 percent of the firm’s clients.
“Political campaigns are getting used to the idea that this is something they need to care about, and they’re getting less ashamed about it,” said Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, a firm that offers services to manage people’s reputations online. Fertik’s company has landed at least one potential 2012 candidate as a client, although he declined to say who.
Reputation.com, Integrity Defenders, Metal Rabbit Media and other digital-strategy firms now provide services — which can cost thousands of dollars — that can include burying unflattering Web content about a candidate in search engine results, monitoring edits made to a candidate’s Wikipedia page and other techniques to help sanitize an image.
Some political consultants now provide these services as well.
However, rewriting the digital past can be a political minefield.
Eagle-eyed bloggers and Web surfers have caught some candidates red-handed deleting content from Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia in attempts to sanitize their online histories.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch allegedly scrubbed a link from Google’s search index that described an amendment he introduced in 2003 that proposed making foreign nationals eligible to run for U.S. president or vice president, a tech blogger wrote Friday.
However, Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier told POLITICO the senator’s website was revamped in April, and the office decided to list only bills he’s sponsored from 2008 to the present since there was a copious amount of content being transferred over to the new site. “There was never, and will never, be any attempt to shy away from Sen. Hatch’s record,” Ferrier said.
Earlier this month, Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) got flak when POLITICO reported that his press secretary attempted to delete the entire “controversies” section on his Wikipedia page.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Twitter account has apparently been scrubbed of all tweets prior to July 22, 2010, hiding some entertaining musings about his professed love of Hershey’s chocolate Easter bunnies, Vanity Fair reported in March. An excoriating tweet about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which he called the then-nominee a “Latina woman racist,” was also part of Gingrich’s batch of missing tweets, Daily Kos noted.
However, Gingrich was “surprised” the tweets were missing, his spokesman Rick Tyler told POLITICO in a recent interview. “We had no idea. We were all wondering how in the world that happened.”
Tyler pointed to a blog post on the “Help” area of Twitter’s site that addresses queries about missing tweets — a known issue on the site — and said staffers were going to contact the San Francisco-based company. On the same day POLITICO spoke with Tyler, a person from Gingrich’s Twitter handle (@newtgingrich) wrote under the blog post: “All tweets but one before July 2010 are missing.”
For politicians these days, you are what search engines and social networks say you are. A bad online reputation can cost you the election.
“Everybody who’s going to make a decision about you who’s under 75 is going to make the decision based on the Internet,” Fertik said.
A candidate’s Wikipedia page always figures prominently on the first page of search results, which makes it imperative for campaigns to closely monitor a candidate’s page, according to Eric Frenchman, chief strategist at Republican consulting firm Connell Donatelli, who boasts potential presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) as a client.
“It’s pretty important, because if it’s not No. 1, it’s the No. 2 listing, and Google drives a lot of Wikipedia’s traffic,” Frenchman said. “It’s very important to keep up [with] the data on the Wikipedia page. In the bigger races we work on, it’s just part of what we do.”
Frenchman said the firm monitors Bachmann’s Wikipedia page and has made a few changes to it, but the edits “were correcting factual errors.” For example, Frenchman corrected the year Bachmann was married.
In addition to inaccuracies, the Web is a repository for every embarrassing snafu and cringe-worthy public moment for a political figure. Questionable tweets, salacious photos, news stories about decades-old scandals and previous missteps — you name it — can all be culled within a matter of seconds with a just a few taps on a keyboard.
That’s what happened to then-Virginia GOP Rep. George Allen in 2006, when a video of him using the slur “macaca” was posted on YouTube. More recently, former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) was the subject of a Gawker report that he trolled for dates on Craigslist and sent shirtless photos to a potential suitor. He resigned three hours after the photos appeared.
Cyberspace is an unforgiving place; and sometimes, even time can’t erase past blunders.
Just look at the cautionary tale of former Pennsylvania senator and likely Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Nearly a decade after sex columnist Dan Savage and his followers hammered the senator for making anti-homosexual comments, the top result in a recent Google search for “Rick Santorum” is a link to Savage’s Web page describing a sexual neologism for the senator’s last name.
The third link listed in the search results directs people to a Wikipedia entry describing the 2003 controversy.
Campaigns circa 2012 have gotten increasingly savvy about ways to game the system.
For a candidate, the first page of links that appears when someone searches for them is one of the most — if not the most — crucial areas on the Web. That list is the first thing undecided voters see, and it will ultimately craft their perception of a candidate.
Search engine results are also an area where online professionals can help a candidate, applying business tools known as search engine optimization to the results for political wannabes. “The new source of facts and opinions is a search engine’s query, so you can be the most articulate, most exciting, most charismatic, most intelligent, most clear-seeing candidate in the world, but if the Internet doesn’t think so, it’s not true,” Fertik said.
A big part of a campaign’s digital strategy is dedicated to tracking Google Trends, which measures how often a term has been searched for.
“Google is not an editorial page. It’s incumbent upon organizations to understand how to operate that algorithm and optimize their placement on the Google search engine,” said Mindy Finn, a partner at Washington political consulting firm Engage. Google “focuses on people searching and seeing the most relevant results. They don’t serve candidates or campaigns.”
But employing every SEO trick in the book doesn’t guarantee immediate results, according to Finn. It takes time for any noticeable improvements in link placement to appear.
In Europe, there’s a push for Google to accommodate requests to remove links that lead to unflattering Web content. The Spanish government has asked the search giant to scrub links to Web content on 90 people, The Associated Press reported. Additionally, Spain is backing four people who have taken Google to court so old Web posts about them can be deleted from search results.
In the divisive U.S. political landscape, observant Web surfers of all stripes keep an eye out for attempts to mask foot-in-the-mouth moments.
The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer drew criticism earlier this month from left-leaning blogs such as Right Wing Watch after he modified a blog post about welfare to hide a sentence he originally wrote.
The original blog post read as follows: “Welfare has destroyed the African-American family by telling young black women that husbands and fathers are unnecessary and obsolete. Welfare has subsidized illegitimacy by offering financial rewards to women who have more children out of wedlock. We have incentivized fornication rather than marriage, and it’s no wonder we are now awash in the disastrous social consequences of people who rut like rabbits.”
He later tweaked the last phrase in the sentence to read, “and it’s no wonder we are now awash in the disastrous social consequences of those who engage in random and reckless promiscuity, whether they are Caucasian, Hispanic or African-American.”
AFA has received funding from Gingrich. The former speaker — as well as Bachmann, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain — has appeared on Fischer’s radio show.
In a blog post explaining the tweaks, Fischer said he “was not singling out the African-American community in particular” but “was commenting on the effect of our misguided welfare policies across the board.”
Finn acknowledges that the Web is a “constant crisis” for candidates and campaigns.
“One of the realities of the new media landscape is that marks against your record don’t go away,” she said. “They follow you month after month and year after year.”