Opponents’ Web attacks can make things sticky for candidates

Even some of Richard Alarcon’s campaign supporters had to concede that the website slamming the politician was cleverly done.

The site had an interactive Monopoly-style board game that drew attention to the legal troubles of the Los Angeles city councilman, who is running for state Assembly this year.

A click on the video brings up a commentary about a grand jury’s 18-count felony indictment against Alarcon and his wife, stemming from the district attorney’s allegations that they lied about where they lived and voted fraudulently. It does not mention that the couple have pleaded not guilty to all counts and have not yet gone to trial.

“What bothers me is that people can hide in a digital disguise and not accept responsibility for what they say,” Alarcon said.

“Where I grew up, when you had something to say to someone, you said it to their face,” he said. In more than 30 years in politics, he added, “I’ve always put my name behind any statement that I’ve ever made.”

The online hit at Alarcon is just one of many smear websites, phony Twitter accounts and attack YouTube videos that are rapidly becoming staples of political campaigning in 2012.

Social media sites are giving candidates myriad new ways to reach voters. But they’re also offering platforms to opponents who want to smear them, often anonymously and in ways the candidates have trouble fighting.

Smear tactics are nothing new in politics, of course. But Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other social media sites offer a trove of new material for opposition researchers. That can include an unfortunate photo from a party, a regrettable tweet or a video ripe for distortion.

“Campaigns have used surrogates, ‘whisper campaigns,’ leaks, ‘independent’ advertising and opposition research to attack the opposing candidates without leaving any fingerprints on the knife,” said Tim Groeling, chairman of UCLA’s Communication Studies Department and an expert on political communication and new media. “People can literally edit video on their phone these days.”

One target has been first-term Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. Although he promised not to seek another office until after he served eight years, Trutanich recently filed for district attorney. So John Thomas, a twenty-something Republican consultant for another candidate, Deputy D.A. Alan Jackson, skewers the city’s top lawyer for breaking his pledge.

Thomas, who has made the Internet and social media a specialty, matched news clips with video of Trutanich to launch a couple of small websites and a YouTube parody. He said he typically tries to get the attention of people who might influence a campaign — from donors to reporters — early in a race.

Thomas said his techniques are fair because they are based on fact, and he always identifies the candidate he represents.

“We are simply using another medium,” said Thomas, who sees the websites as a digital form of campaign mail or TV ads.

He doesn’t buy rival or deceptive domain names, but he does like to purchase keywords that voters may use in searching an opponent’s site to lead them to his own candidate’s page. He also uses cookies and other tracking devices to see if a user views his ads, and he varies his messages according to where voters live.

“It’s my job to transmit a message and tell a story to voters,” Thomas said. “Sometimes the truth hurts.”

Others have created “decoy” websites to draw an unwitting Internet surfer who is trying to research a candidate. Two variations on Newt Gingrich’s official website during the exploratory period of his quest for the Republican nomination for president redirected readers to stories critical of him. Similar sites have dogged campaigns from Alaska to New York.

And then there is a compilation of entries from a now-discontinued Facebook page of Ian Calderon, the 26-year-old scion of a local political family with substantial influence in Sacramento.

Calderon, who works for Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), wants to succeed his termed-out father, Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), the lower house’s majority leader. Ian Calderon is running for the same seat as former Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, who acknowledges his connection to the slam website.

A longtime state employee, who said he was upset about what he saw as abuses of power and taxpayer dollars, told The Times he “captured” about 900 Facebook entries before Calderon’s page was shut down late last year and made them available to the Bermudez campaign. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. Some of the posts contained inane remarks typical of what a young person might say to friends, but a couple implied a callous or flippant attitude about matters that many voters would consider offensive.

“If ever one was hoisted on his own petard, this is it,” said former Assemblyman Bruce Young, who is overseeing the Bermudez campaign.

Calderon campaign manager Leslie Rodriguez said that the postings were “taken out of context” and that she had urged her candidate to do his best to ignore the site and “stay focused and positive.”

Richie Ross, the Democratic consultant to both the Alarcon and Calderon campaigns, said he expects to find out who created the Monopoly-style site once backers spend at least $1,000 on it, an amount that requires them to disclose details to state campaign finance officials or face criminal prosecution.

In the meantime, Ross said, he’s “not all that worried” about the hits and neither is Alarcon. “He’s been through this” in several successful campaigns for the Legislature and City Council, Ross said, adding that it’s been harder on Calderon, a first-time candidate.

“I tell him, ‘No real voters see these websites, so just relax,’ ” Ross said.

Sometimes the hard-core Web tactics backfire.

During last year’s special election for a Los Angeles-area congressional seat, a conservative operative made a rap video that went viral on YouTube. Based on an allegation that Janice Hahn, as an L.A. councilwoman, had provided city anti-gang program money to outlaws, the video superimposed Hahn’s face on the body of a stripper while tough-looking black convicts exhorted her to “Give me your cash... !”

News organizations debunked the story, women’s and civil rights activists rallied to her defense, and Hahn, a Democrat, won the election. She ended up using the video to raise money for her campaign.