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Smear 2.0: Attack-Ad Culture Goes Online

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"Are You Pumped?" asks Exxon-McCain, a website dedicated to underlining John McCain's relationship with Big Oil, the latest in a series of sites that take aim at the presidential candidates. The DNC released Exxon-McCain Wednesday, posting video and text on the $2 Million in contributions "Exxon & friends" have given to McCain. The site uses similar fonts and features as to make its statement. "What We're Against: ... Solutions That Work For You." "What We're For: ... a $4 billion tax cut for oil companies."

One day earlier, the DNC released The Next Cheney, a play on the name of the new Republican site The Next Right and featuring an oversized image of a growling Cheney and an argument that there are dangerous similarities between several potential GOP VP picks and Cheney, including Mitt Romney and Carly Fiorina. The site provides factsheets for each potential candidate and encourages "reporters, voters and activists [to] review the record," says DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. Using colors and images to paint each of the potential running mates in the worst possible light, the site reeks of scorn for the seven people listed. Oliver Burkeman at describes the site as "like a somewhat pre-emptive attack, but then again, we know Cheney likes pre-emptive attacks."

Attack ads are nothing new, but these sites provide an interactive method for getting their point across that videos and flat ads can't achieve. They're deeper and more intricate in nature, with features appealing to a wide range of readers, utilizing techniques campaigns have become familiar with while creating sub-sites like Obama's Fact Check site. The new sites, however, have their own look and feel, and while they credit their parent organizations, they advertise their affiliations in more subtle ways, like faded images in site corners. According to Micah Sifry, Executive Editor of techPresident, the sites are "mainly press stunts [used to] zero in on some weakness or association that a candidate may have." Sifry says, "August is a good time to launch them because it's traditionally a slow news month."

Also announced Tuesday, Campaign Money Watch launched McCain's Lobbyists, a site resembling a cross between a Monopoly game and a family tree (plus a blog) identifying individuals who represent specific groups including oil and tobacco. Other organizations such as tie lobbying dollars to politicians, but this one specifically goes after McCain.

The Obama campaign launched their colorful Low Road Express two weeks ago in an effort to push back against attack ads running against Obama and to discredit McCain's "Straight Talk Express" theme. More in-your-face than their Fact Check site, Low Road showcases videos of what McCain "promised" and how experts view the latest McCain campaign smear tactics. "These days John McCain doesn't seem to stand for anything but negative attacks and false charges against Barack Obama."

The RNC was first out of the gate with these kind of sites. Meet Barack Obama was launched in June and emphasizes Senator Obama's "freshman" status, trying to frame him as inexperienced while using similar fonts and colors to BarackBook, announced two weeks ago, parodies a facebook profile for Barack Obama, tying him to corrupt officials, alleged mobsters, and a former leader of The Weather Underground. A flat interpretation of social networking sites, users can subscribe to its news feed.

"As we've seen with People for the American Way's The Right-Wing Facebook and the RNC's BarackBook, politicos are coming to understand how much social networks matter in 2008," noted techPresident's Nancy Scola. the right-wing facebook, released last fall, shows more personality than BarackBook, however. It's more relaxed and silly, more personalized like an actual facebook page, attacking all of the major Republican candidates from the primary season with lines like "John McCain joined the group "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran."

Campaigns and nonprofits aren't the only ones utilizing websites to make statements either.
I Am Hussein was built in one day to defend Barack Obama for his middle name, chiding Republicans for attempting to use that against him. Obama Mama, a CafePress site, sells T-shirts geared toward moms who support Obama.

"[All of] these sites are mainly about reinforcing the sensibilities of existing supporters," explains Sifry. So far, it's working.