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The GOP’s sockpuppets

“John McCain is aware of the Internet.”

This dubious assurance — an instant Internet classic — was offered by John McCain aide Mark Soohoo at a recent technology conference, where he had the unenviable task of defending his boss’s previous confession of computer ignorance (“I’m an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance I can get.”). Unsurprisingly, Soohoo’s argument that “you don’t actually have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country” did not convince the assembled digerati.

The self-confessed tech ignorance from the head of the GOP pervades the party from top to bottom, as Republicans have failed miserably this decade to keep up with critical technological advances and the societal changes they have spawned. While Democrats build on the innovations pioneered by Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003, Republicans at all levels are being left far behind in today’s socially networked world.

Rather than adapt and innovate, as Democrats have done, frustrated Republicans are resorting to clumsy guerrilla action — attempting to sabotage their opponents’ online efforts by creating “sockpuppets,” or fake online personas. Most often, they engage in “concern-trolling,” offering insincere advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient.

 In 2006, the policy director for then-Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.Y.) was forced to resign after he was caught sockpuppeting as “IndieNH” on progressive community site Blue Granite (now Blue Hampshire).

“I am going to look at the competitive race list to figure out where to send another … netroots donation and maybe help out in other ways,” IndieNH concern-trolled. “Maybe CT or NY for me  —  they are at least close by. Anyone interested in pooling NH efforts for some of those races? Maybe we could even go help out for a few days in buses or something in November?”

Suspicious Blue Granite Editor Laura Clawson (now a Daily Kos contributing editor) traced the postings to Bass’s office on Capitol Hill (making those postings a violation of the Hatch Act, among other things), and the story became a major distraction for the Bass campaign at a time it was struggling to put Paul Hodes (D) away. Hodes would go on to win in a shocker upset in November.

Over in New Jersey, Blue Jersey editor Juan Melli was tracking a set of accounts all created from an identical IP address (the digital tag identifying the network location of the computer accessing the site). With names like “usedtobeblue” and “cleanupnj,” these supposed former “concerned” Democrats were really, really, really disturbed by Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez’s alleged corruption.  

Traced to Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr.’s office, campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker indignantly denied that the postings were coming from her office. However, The New York Times didn’t just destroy that claim, but suggested the postings were coming from Hazelbaker herself:

“The Kean campaign’s technical adviser said that the Internet protocol, or IP, address that linked the posts to the Keane headquarters was an old one, ‘from over a month ago.’ But an e-mail message Ms. Hazelbaker sent to a reporter on Wednesday shares the same IP address.” Ouch.

And just to prove that elephants sometimes forget their mistakes, just this week David Beckwith, senior staffer for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), was busted for sockpuppeting at Texas community blog Burnt Orange Report and at Daily Kos.

Oh — and Jill Hazelbaker, the bumbling Jersey sockpuppeteer?  She’s now John McCain’s national communications director. No wonder Republicans are getting trounced online. In the online political battle, Republicans are resorting to the digital equivalent of horse cavalry and muskets to fight Democrats’ 21st century arsenal.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .

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