By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER
Let’s talk politics. But make sure there are no children around.
Just disable your adult-content filters and look online.
The Internet has become an integral part of modern politics; one-time presidential candidate Howard Dean made it an essential tool for organizing and fund-raising. But increasingly, cyberspace also has a dark side.
With a few mouse clicks, you can find anonymous Web sites and blogs that test old political boundaries of privacy and good taste, sometimes substituting dark satire and partisan fiction for facts and opinion.
Look no further than a new Web site that takes a swipe at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
There, readers are treated to a rear-view portrait of the Democratic donkey. Among other things, the site invites people to register so they can share a room with a “putrid vagrant” during the convention. Under development are links for delegates — to adult entertainment and bail bondsmen.
Another political Web site features an image that’s supposed to be a warning for what the Republican elephant will do to “RINOs — or “Republicans In Name Only,” who don’t toe the conservative line.
Another anonymous Web site recently touched off a spate of online attacks and counterattacks after it took pot shots at a congressman’s daughter.
The site was denounced by both Democrats and Republicans because it broke a long-standing taboo.
“Family members are off-limits in this business,” said Dick Wadhams, the longtime Republican consultant who’s running for the Colorado state GOP chairmanship.
Wadhams found himself a target of a Web site that included a string of supposed Wadhams talking points like (expletive deleted), (expletive deleted) and (expletive deleted).
The quotes were bogus, of course, but it typifies part of what the Internet has added to the marketplace of ideas.
“The public has a way of sorting through all this, and I do think that crossing the line as clearly as these things do will hurt their cause ultimately,” Wadhams said this week. “So actually, from a political standpoint, I probably would invite more of this from the other side, because I think it hurts them.”
Pat Waak, the Colorado state Democratic Party chairwoman, said the explosion of sometimes nasty, anonymous Web sites is a sign of the times, and one that adds to public cynicism about the whole political game.
“I think it hurts politics in general,” Waak said. “There’s a general attitude that politics is nasty and dirty, where I personally see politics as a way to exercise the democratic freedoms we have in this country. I think people just throw up their hands and say, ‘This is the same nasty stuff. See, I was right. Politics is dirty.’ ”
Online hit pieces were a staple of the 2006 campaign, both in Colorado and nationally. It has become common for groups on the left or the right to launch edgy, often satirical Web sites attacking candidates.
Jason Bane, one of the once-anonymous authors behind the political site ColoradoPols.com, said he has seen the online political world turn more aggressive since last year’s election.
Bane said ColoradoPols tries to weed out anonymous postings that make inflammatory charges with no proof. “We don’t want it to be a place where it’s character-assassination central,” Bane said.
Still, he said the Internet is still a wild, untamed realm that mostly polices itself.
“You have to take it upon yourself to be fair. When you do that, you get the credibility for it,” he said. “If you’re just going to slander people, be aggressive and use foul language, people will shy away from it. It takes care of itself.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)