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Sunday, April 23, 2000 | Print this story

Parody Web Sites Skewer Campaigns
Technology: The Internet makes it much easier for others to draw attention to issues or scandals politicians would like voters to forget.

By MASSIE RITSCH, Times Staff Writer


     George W. Bush's strategists were pretty clever when, to prevent Internet attacks on the Texas governor's presidential campaign, they purchased the Web site addresses bushsucks.com, bushblows.com and bushbites.com.
     But a 30-year-old database programmer named Zack Exley was even more sly and for $70 claimed the seemingly benign domain name http://www.gwbush.com/ on the Internet's registry. Since December 1998, Bush's official Web site, http://www.georgewbush.com/, has been challenged--and irritated--by the easy-to-find parody that now claims 300,000 visitors a month.
     The site most recently posted a bogus news release in which Bush announces that "I'm adopting Elian and making him my running mate." Accompanying photographs pair the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and the 6-year-old Cuban castaway.

     Fake Sites Look and Sound Official

     Lampooning politicians--be they presidential candidates or first ladies running for Senate--with phony photos and cooked-up quotes is nothing new. It's just that software and the Web have made such work so easy and even misleading. One anti-Bush site is dedicated to doctoring photographs of the governor, replacing whatever is pictured in his hand--a baseball, a microphone, a grapefruit--with a red bong.
     But gwbush.com, along with http://www.algore-2000.org/, strives for authenticity and works to sound and look official. The graphics match and the photos look real, which is partly why Exley was threatened with a lawsuit by the Bush camp. Bush called the designer a "garbage man" and incited an entire Internet community when he decried Exley's freewheeling site: "There ought to be limits to freedom."
     The Bush campaign never sued, but a year ago it lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Last week, the FEC announced it had dismissed the complaint against Exley, whose site has focused on rumors that Bush used illegal drugs as a younger man.
     The complaint asserted that Exley's site should abide by laws governing political action committees because it advocates a political position. Exley would not have had to shut down his site if Bush had prevailed, but he would have had to file disclosure forms about how his site is run and its funding. The FEC said it has more serious complaints to consider.
     For Exley, who lives in New York, the complaint was a boon. "I really wasn't thinking about creating a Web site that would have a big audience because it's really hard to draw an audience to a Web site. But then Bush went and did all that work for me and drew an audience to the site."
     The Bush campaign now seems to want to forget its candidate ever made an issue of gwbush.com, which gets about 3% of the traffic the official site gets.
     "The governor has a good sense of humor, and we certainly hope people will use common sense and good judgment," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said of parody sites. McClellan was stone silent when informed of the Bush-Elian 2000 ticket.
     While Al Gore's official Web site--http://www.algore2000.com/--was promoting the vice president's call last week to end school violence, algore-2000.org was offering 35 reasons not to vote for Gore. The satire is lost on some visitors.
     "People are pretty stupid, because I get a lot of e-mail from people thinking I am Al Gore," said site creator Rick Phillips, who has been congratulated for Gore's performance in debates and lobbied on the fate of Elian Gonzalez.
     Indeed, algore-2000.org welcomes visitors with photos of the Democrats' likely nominee at his most earnest, and a message: "I hope this will tell you a little more about my family, our hypocrisy, scandal, and my progressive vision for our nation. I also hope that you will use this site to see that I am a crooked silver-tongued liar."
     Using the same font as Gore's official site and a similar design, algore-2000.org ties Gore to illegal Chinese fund-raising and, with the addition of four small stars, turns Gore's campaign logo into a convincing representation of the Chinese flag.

     'No Advocacy' for Particular Candidate

     Deflating a candidate's boasting and pointing out hypocrisy seem to be the missions of Web sites such as these. Though some pages are more diatribe than parody and make the gossipy Drudge Report look like the BBC, the online gadflies generally resist supporting another candidate.
     "You lose credibility if you slam a candidate and then say, 'Vote for G.W. Bush or vote for Howard Phillips,' " Phillips explained. (Howard Phillips is the Constitution Party's candidate for president and is not related to Phillips, a 24-year-old Web designer from Fullerton, Calif.)
     Exley does not want anyone to construe his skewering of Bush as support for Gore or any other candidate. When it comes time to vote, he says he will flip a coin between Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
     "Most of the people that are taking the time to make an independent Web site, to put something up there, are the kind of people who aren't excited about any of the candidates. That's why there's no advocacy," Exley said.
     In fact, Exley sort of hopes Bush wins. He plans to continue gwbush.com and turn it into a commercial clearinghouse for anti-Bush bumper stickers, buttons and other merchandise.
     "How could I not?" he asked. "This is America, and capitalism is the state religion. I'd be committing a sacrilegious act if I didn't sell something off the site."
     A year ago, when the Bush campaign first complained, Exley said he offered to sell them the domain name for $350,000. He confesses now that it was all bluster--gwbush.com could have been theirs for a few hundred dollars.

     Virtual Heckling

     Examples of tow parodies of presidential campaign Web sites.

Search the archives of the Los Angeles Times for similar stories about:  George W Bush, Alert Jr Gore, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Presidential Elections - 2000, Presidential Candidates, Political Campaigns, Web Sites, Parodies.
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