This year has seen two controversies surrounding online political attacks that were designed to look voter-generated, but were actually produced by people indirectly connected to campaigns. In one, the producer and campaign fared no ill consequences and the work went viral. In the other, the producer and campaign are dealing with a hail of negative publicity and a defunct website. If both of these incidents are superficially similar, why are we calling one a breakthrough and the other a scandal?
The first, the Vote Different video slamming Hillary Clinton, was created by Phil de Vellis (now a sometime techPresident contributor) using the nom de web “parkridge47.” He was employed by Democratic tech consulting firm Blue State Digital, which was working on Barack Obama’s website, until his identity was revealed soon after the video broke. Although he wasn’t working directly on the Obama account, de Vellis was fired from Blue State “Pursuant to company policy regarding outside political work or commentary on behalf of our clients or otherwise.” Obama didn’t have to apologize for the video at all, since it wasn’t created by his campaign.
The second, a now-defunct site call PhoneyFred.org (you can see a screenshot here), was created by Wes Donehue, who runs Under the Power Lines, the web consulting arm of the consulting firm Tompkins, Thompson and Sullivan, which oversees Mitt Romney’s campaign in South Carolina (the Politico’s Jonathan Martin has more on the connection). As of this writing, Donehue is still employed by the firm, but is not working for the campaign. Meanwhile, Romney was sure to distance himself from the site: “”[M]y understanding is an employee of a consultant that we’ve used in South Carolina had put that up, but it was not part of our campaign. He doesn’t work in our campaign. And I’ve instructed that consultant not to let him work in our campaign.” He also told Fox’s Neil Cavuto that he regrets the incident.
So both Vote Different and PhonyFred.org were produced by people employed by firms working for presidential campaigns, but apparently not working directly for those campaigns. The similarities end there. Vote Different stirred up controversy not only because of the mystery of its creator, but because it was smart and entertaining, and it tapped into a current in pop culture — it was soon was featured on cable and network news shows and was linked to all over the web, giving de Vellis his 15 minutes of fame. PhoneyFred.org, on the other hand, was taken down as soon as the Washington Post wrote about it, awarding Donehue a different, harsher kind of notoriety.
Vote Different was a milestone in political messaging for the way it used the cultural language of the mashup — splicing together bits from different media to create a coherent message — to tap into a current of dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton. It used Apple’s iconic imagery to connect to the message of hope espoused by Barack Obama. Plus, in line Seth Godin’s philosophy, it went viral because it was something worth talking about; it was remark-able.
PhoneyFred.org was unoriginal and less on-point, and the only thing worth talking about was who made it. The site was essentially an attempt to pillory Fred Thompson for being, well, Fred Thompson, and unlike Vote Different it wasn’t smart or creative in its own right. It was a classic negative attack, regardless of the medium.
It also followed a sketchy precedent. Donehue’s boss, Warren Tompkins, is Romney’s lead consultant in South Carolina, and he was chief strategist for the Bush campaign in 2000 when rumors emerged in that same state that John McCain had fathered a black love child. This is something more sinister than framing Hillary as Big Brother.
Is it legitimate to compare Donehue and de Vellis, or does the contrasting tenor and effect of their respective work make them too different? Apples to apples or apples to oranges?
I’m leaning towards the latter.