Political Graffiti Goes Online

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
July 18 2000 3:00 AM

Political Graffiti Goes Online

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Dan Parisi, who has fought Clinton administration lawyers over his whitehouse.com pornography site, launched a slightly less obscene Web site in June that encourages users to "vent their grievances about Corporate America, American Politics and Politicians." Unlike most online bulletin board sites, Parisi's Sucks.com was created for only one thing—griping.

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While other political sites connect like-minded individuals or connect public figures with a mass audience, the Sucks.com site is a hive of negativity. Parisi said he just wanted to create a place where people could go to complain. Think of it as online political graffiti.

The site has been in the works for two years, during which time Parisi has purchased more than 20 politically oriented Web addresses (see the June 13 "Net Election" column) that append the word "sucks" to the name of a candidate or institution. The names run from the broad (governmentsucks.com) to the very specific (hastertsucks.com, gephardtsucks.com).

"I just did it because I wanted an original way that people could talk about government and things like that," said Parisi, who said he would not make any money off the sucks.com site. He said he has already spent about $100,000 on the site. The Sucks.com name alone cost him $10,000 when he bought it in April 1999, he said.

Although candidates have been busy buying up some of their own "sucks" sites—George W. Bush presidential campaign owns georgewbushsucks.com and redirects it to his official campaign page—Parisi says he is not merely a broker of sites that could be used to attack political candidates. The site names are not for sale to any bidder at any price, he said.

Parisi said he would keep the site afloat with the more than $2 million in revenue he says his pornography site generates every year.

Complaint sites are nothing new to the Web. Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and The Gap all have sites dedicated to denigrating their businesses. The Consumer Project on Technology, founded by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 1995, has asked one of the Internet's international governing bodies to set up a new top-level ".sucks" domain to the standard .com, .org, and other traditional Web address tags.

Jeff Harris, who charges users $5 to post a complaint to his squeakywheel.com site, said that he has not yet received a complaint about a government official or a politician—but believes that could soon change. "As political handlers in the United States and Canada try to package their politicians more and more like packaged consumer goods, they shouldn't be surprised when an unhappy electorate starts demanding a refund," he said in an e-mail interview.

The success of complaint sites in the political arena—and their influence on democratic discourse—may not be substantial because they fail to use the Internet's ability for true interactivity, said George Washington University philosophy professor David Anderson, who is studying Internet politics with the Democracy Online Project.

"It does kind of encourage people to do the least possible to express themselves in a constructive way," he said.

Anti-Gun Group's Site Targets Virginia Senate Candidate

Handgun Control Inc. is taking aim at former Virginia Gov. George Allen's Senate candidacy with a TV ad and online campaign that target the Republican's record on guns.

The gun control group's association with the Web site is made clear in the usual small print on the TV ads and in links at the bottom of pages on the Web site. The anti-Allen site is also promoted side-by-side with a similar site aimed at criticizing Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush on the Handgun Control home page. Both the Bush and Allen sites use the same design and images, including a close-up photo of a weapon tucked into a pair of jeans. "Made Virginia 'Holster Heaven,' " says a caption under a photo of a smiling Allen giving a thumbs up.

Handgun Control's $100,000 TV ad buy, which began last week, is focused on the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., a part of the state that is usually critical to Democrats' statewide election prospects. Allen is challenging Virginia's incumbent Democratic senator, Charles S. Robb, in a race rated "too close to call" by Congressional Quarterly.

The Allen campaign promptly returned fire, accusing Robb of allowing interest groups—"liberal extremist groups," Allen said—such as Handgun Control and the Sierra Club to pay for negative campaign ads against him.

Earlier in the year, the Sierra Club spent an undisclosed amount on TV ads attacking Allen's environmental record. As is common practice for such groups these days, the group posted RealVideo versions of the ads and related information on the voter education pages of its Web site.

Advocacy groups are not required to disclose their political spending, online or on-the-air, but they cannot coordinate their efforts against Allen or other candidates with rival campaigns, in this case Robb's.

Some Campaign Web Sites Not Accessible for Disabled

When George W. Bush held a campaign event in Cleveland last month to unveil a $145 million plan to help disabled Americans get to the workplace, Al Gore's Web team was incensed. How could Bush talk about disabled accessibility, the Gore team wondered, when his Web site cannot be accessed by the blind?

Web site accessibility for the disabled has gained currency in the private sector, with companies coming under increasing pressure to design their sites in such a way that they can be accessed by those who can't see, can't hear, or can't manipulate a mouse. So far, campaign Web sites have received little such scrutiny.

But that may change, as evaluating a site's accessibility gets easier and easier. The Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit that works to increase educational opportunities for the disabled through the use of technology, maintains a tool on its Web site that reads the HTML code of a URL and generates a report detailing specific problems. Sites that pass the basic requirements for Priority 1 accessibility can post a "Bobby-Approved" banner on their home pages.

"Bobby" lead designer Michael Cooper says that achieving Priority 1 status is not particularly costly or difficult for Web sites that begin with accessibility as a top priority. "There are a lot of guidelines for making a site accessible. But they boil down to the fact that the Web site structure needs to be flexible enough to adapt to a particular user. A person who does not have motor access, for instance, should not have to move a mouse around, and a person who is deaf needs textual information," Cooper said.

So was the Gore camp's indignation over Bush's disability remarks justified? A Bobby report on georgewbush.com found 12 instances in which the Bush site failed to provide alternative text (commonly called "alt-text") for "image map hot spots," sections of images on a site that can be clicked for further information.

Bobby found no verifiable problems with algore2000.com, hence the Bobby banner at the bottom of the Gore home page and this sound bite from Gore Web director Ben Green: "This is a clear example of a contrast between Al Gore and George W. Bush. ... Our site has met this standard since last fall. It's something that's a high priority for us. Every time we put a new piece of content on the site we make sure it's OK. We run this (Bobby) test every day."

The Bush campaign did not return a call for comment.

The accessibility issue is not one that simply plagues Republican candidates, however. In the New York Senate race, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's site fails the Bobby test, while Rep. Rick Lazio's site passes. Green Party presidential hopeful Ralph Nader's site fails, as does Patrick J. Buchanan's.

Bobby is not the only tool for judging a site's accessibility. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) maintains a list of accessibility resources on their site, which includes WAVE, a popular tool maintained by Pennsylvania's Initiative on Assistive Technology. Bush's site gets several red flags from WAVE; Gore's site gets none.

Judy Brewer, director of the Web accessibility initiative at W3C, says making a page easy for the disabled to navigate can be as simple as giving each frame its own name and ensuring that code for text is written in such a way that screen readers, or refreshable Braille keyboard strips, don't skip from one column to the next, coming up with unintelligible sentences.

Brewer also says she is fielding more and more calls from campaign Webmasters looking for help in designing their sites. "The change this year is that of all of a sudden the people involved in these political camps seem to have understood that the disabled vote counts. And that they want to get it." 

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