A weekly UPI series examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.
CHICAGO, March 10 (UPI) -- Move over, MoveOn.org -- new competition is coming.
An array of polemical, political sites is debuting online, utilizing the interactive features of the Internet, and promising to provide a major outlet for visceral attacks on both major candidates for the White House this fall, President George W. Bush and -- presumably -- Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass.
Back in 1988, independent attack ads emerged on TV and helped shape the perception of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president, as weak on crime. The ads touted the story of felon Willie Horton, let out of jail during the governor's administration.
Now, 16 years later, privately funded, third party Web sites are leading the way with harsh, fact-and-document-based portrayals of the contenders, leaving the formal campaign organizations free -- or at least freer than in the past -- to market themselves with positive messages and pose themselves on higher ground.
"The idea is to create a stream of pollution that seeps into the mainstream media," Sidney Blumenthal, former White House aide in the Clinton Administration and author of the book, "The Clinton Wars," told United Press International.
The technology-based tactics have been demonstrably effective thus far during the campaign. The independent sites provide video, audio, interactive games, and even copies of actual government documents in the Portable Document Format or PDF, so visitors can e-mail the materials to others.
That is a lot more interactive than campaigns have ever been with TV or direct mail.
A site called Democrats.com, for example, aggressively touts a story about President Bush's rescheduled drill weekends in the Alabama National Guard in the early 1970s, offering $1,000 to anyone who had "actually seen" Bush on duty there and publishing the records online.
"We have broken important news stories on our site, including our recent publication of records from George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard that the White House did not know about," Bob Fertik, managing partner of Democrats.com, told UPI.
This hardball tactic led to a fuller disclosure of the military records by the White House, Fertik claimed.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the Internet has political value," said Miki Dzugan, president of Rapport Online Inc., a marketing firm in St. Paul, Minn.
The Democrats.com site describes itself as the home for "aggressive progressives," and helps pay its bills by merchandising "Impeach Bush!" bumper stickers, among other paraphernalia.
Another site, Wintersoldier.com, places records from Sen. Kerry's anti-war protests online, including the transcript of the full question and answer session before a U.S. Senate committee, where the young Vietnam veteran detailed, among other activities, his trip as a civilian to the Paris Peace talks involving the U.S., South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese governments.
"I have been to Paris. I have talked with both delegations at the peace talks -- that is to say the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government," Kerry said during testimony on April 22, 1971, before the Foreign Relations Committee, according to the transcript posted on the site.
Wintersoldier.com also features audio sound bites -- in the MP3 format -- of Kerry describing what he did in Vietnam, both in testimony before the Senate and in an interview.
"Yes, I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed," Kerry said in the sound bite. "I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages."
Scott Swett, the producer of the site and a board member of FreeRepublic.org, told UPI that Wintersoldier.com also features compressed video footage of Kerry standing in a line on the Mall in Washington during a protest rally; and excerpts from the senator's out-of-print book, "The New Soldier," co-authored with friends from Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"More than anyone, John Kerry is responsible for the popular image of Vietnam veterans that we've seen in movies like 'The Deer Hunter' and others," Swett said.
Swett's site is receiving hundreds of e-mails each week from readers, many of whom are pointing him in the direction of new documents and materials.
Swett said he got the idea for the site when he tried to buy a copy of Sen. Kerry's book on eBay.com, and found the $500 price tag exorbitant.
"I wanted to make the information about Kerry available to the public," said Swett, "without them having to buy the book."
MoveOn.org, the prototype site for this kind of activity, also employs computing technologies to get its message across.
For example, the site has posted a Webcast of remarks on Jan. 15 by former Vice President Al Gore to MoveOn.org members, making it available to all visitors. MoveOn.org also posts a PDF version of an ad it placed in The Washington Post, as well as 30 second TV spots, for members to download and distribute.
"These groups can now also prepare an ad that they never plan to put on the air, but it can be put on the Internet and reach a very targeted audience," Jeff Stein, an assistant professor of electronic media at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and a political analyst at KWWL-TV in Waterloo, Iowa, told UPI.
Blumenthal said he thinks some of the sites may be coordinating their message with professional political operatives.
"There is a general understanding that there is a division of labor in the campaign," he said. "The president is lifting his positive message in TV ads and the dirty work is left to surrogates."
Too much coordination can be costly -- and perhaps illegal -- as evidenced by the letter an attorney from the Republican National Committee wrote last Friday regarding an advertising campaign being undertaken by MoveOn.org.
The letter charged the organization's campaign violates federal soft money finance rules because it directly advocates the election or defeat of a federal candidate.
The site has been promised funding from billionaire George Soros and other wealthy liberal activists.
These third party political sites are far more daring than the offerings of the Bush campaign, or the Kerry organization.
Fertik said his site, Democrats.com, expects in the coming weeks to release more "evidence that Bush is lying when he claims he fulfilled his obligation to the National Guard."
Originating such stories on independent, third party Internet sites might shield the campaigns from potential voter backlash, such as what happened when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's campaign produced ads containing negative personal attacks against rival Democrat, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., during the Iowa caucuses in February.
A report in the March 2004 issue of American Demographics magazine, a leading journal for behavioral scientists, suggests the ads undermined Dean's goodwill with Iowa voters and might have cost him a victory there.
Famed for fundraising online, the Dean campaign may have fared better with another Internet tack in Iowa, experts said.
"The Web can be used in a variety of ways and will provide cover for campaign organizations that do not want to dirty their hands," Rich Hanley, director of graduate programs in the school of communications at Quinnipac University, Hamden, Conn., told UPI.
Gene Koprowski covers online issues for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org