The Power Jokers

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Feb. 4 2000 3:30 AM

The Power Jokers

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.


{{Slate's Political Roundup#73099}}

At the 1996 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, the only thing more titillating than Dick Morris' spectacularly sordid demise was the Smart Ass, a hilarious political fanzine that skewered Dems and GOPers alike with bawdy and vicious takedowns. Where else would you find a sex-channel spoof called "RNC After Dark" featuring the hard-bodied trio of Pat Buchanan, Ralph Reed, and Ollie "I'm looking for more than a few good men" North?

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What a difference the Internet makes. Today, dozens of political spoof sites litter the Web, be they in the form of Buchanan2000.com (no surprises here, Pat's a fascist!) or the more informative but equally smug nhprimarysource.com.

Amid all this binary humor, two sites really stand out. They are gwbush.com and YesRudy.com, two satirical powerhouses that launched as exact mirror images of George Bush and Rudy Giuliani's official Web sites, but with the actual text replaced with confusingly deadpan indictments of the candidates. At first, many surfers had no inkling of the joke. But both sites bore the hallmarks of the established masters of online satire—a digital agitprop outfit known as RTMark.

"With gwbush and YesRudy, we were able to focus on the corporate influence on politics," says Ray Thomas, an alias for one of the four key members of RTMark. "One of our goals is to stir things up and get more engagement in the political process," adds Frank Guerrero (yes, another alias). Their motives are those of the classic gadfly: to lampoon those in power.

RTMark began as a BBS in the early 1990s and took its cultural mischief to the Web in 1995. The quartet, along with a wider network of other members, acts as a clearinghouse for art and activism. But for all its tomfoolery, RTMark is a registered company and runs its Web site—tagged "Corporate Consulting for the 21st Century"—in a businesslike fashion. Collaborators are encouraged to go to RTMark's site and to suggest creative anti-corporate projects. The group will then seek investors to fund projects and workers to execute them. Thomas estimates that only 20 percent of the projects posted actually need real money to execute, but he says "the aim is always profit, cultural profit."

The group has an impressive track record. Before entering politics, RTMark made a name for itself through the Barbie Liberation Organization, a wicked project that switched the voice boxes in over 300 Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls. Kids around the nation were surprised to hear G.I. Joes announce, "Want to go shopping?" Most recently, it has also been the shadowy, enabling hand behind art group etoy.com's now infamous David vs. Goliath battle with eToys in the legal battle to keep its name.

RTMark can, in fact, function only in the shadows. Not only do all the members work under aliases, but some of the core members have never even met each other. "Like a corporation," says Thomas, "we hide behind a corporate veil. This limits our liability and the liability of our investors."

With good reason. Last April, when RTMark launched gwbush.com with computer programmer Zack Exley, who had registered the domain name and had approached RTMark with the project, the Bush camp went ballistic at the mirror image of its official georgewbush.com site. Not only did candidate Bush famously attack the site, but his lawyers issued a cease-and-desist letter.

"We like to embrace these cease-and-desist letters," says Guerrero, "They prove something is working." Less happy was 30-year-old Exley, the only member of the project whose real name was known. But Bush's legal threats worried him less than the tactic of misleading Web surfers. Exley says he "wanted to do a more straightforward parody of the Bush campaign," adding that "parody is the best way … to convey a political message." With RTMark's satirical mirror approach, Exley believed, "people were confused."

"We thought people were smart enough," to get the satire, says Thomas. But in June 1999, Exley took complete control of gwbush.com, and "we were urged to walk away," says Thomas. "Sure," he notes, "we were using subterfuge, but just as Jonathan Swift was with A Modest Proposal. It's sort of, like, the difference between Swift and Saturday Night Live."

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