Press gang, by Lucy Clement
Getting cyber-spoofed is a hazard for any online entity. That's why all the big companies buy up every domain name that looks like their own (ba.com, ba.co.uk, britishairways.com, etc). But, damn it, there's always one you miss.
When New Labour launched its "Big Conversation" (this week's attraction: online chat with arts minister Estelle Morris) at www.bigconversation.org.uk, someone failed to notice that www.thebigconversation.org not only already existed, but had been going for eighteen months.
The original site - a non-party political discussion forum covering all sorts of issues - put out a statement saying: "We were disappointed to find the New Labour initiative is simply an email form and effectively a 'one way' conversation. This website - the original - offers independence, no censorship, openness, innovative forum areas and research expertise for future analysis. The feedback from hundreds of emails and thousands of responses is that this is what people actually want." Fair point. Someone else quickly bought up www.bigcon.co.uk for a properly off-message spoof (though not a very good one).
The left isn't immune to such attacks. The Respect Coalition has launched a cheerful looking site at www.respectcoalition.com, only to find it quickly spoofed at www.respectcoalition.co.uk. The spoof began rather well, leading on that notorious picture of Galloway and Saddam, with the headline "This looks cosy". Which indeed it did. However the site's right-wing politics quickly became apparent when a day or two later the new top story featured offensive comments about "gyppos".
Meanwhile, in the USA the battle of the "miserable failures" continues. No - not the US presidential campaign - but the trend of google-bombing. This began late last year when bored office workers were amused to discover that by typing "miserable failure" into the search engine Google and clicking on "I'm Feeling Lucky" you would arrive at the biography of George W Bush on the White House website. (This works because of a quirk in the way Google searches the internet for web pages.) But Bush supporters quickly struck back. A search for "miserable failure" now takes you to the website of leftie film maker Michael Moore. Who in turn has posted on the first page of his site a copy of the President's dental records - you know, the ones which prove he definitely fought in the Vietnam War in Alabama, right? And so it continues.
In fact, the US presidency is getting beyond parody. This week, while the long-running spoof at www.whitehouse.org was leading on "Defusing AWOLgate", the real thing - www.whitehouse.gov - featured an "Ask the White House" session with NASCAR racing driver Michael Waltrip (the NASCAR dad is a demographic group much beloved of US pollsters, rather like Essex Man or Worcester Woman in the UK). Here is an extract. Remember, this is from the website of the leadership of the free world:
"Kristin, from Washington D.C. writes: Hey Michael Huge Nascar fan here Your favorite charity is the Motor Racing Outreach. I was wondering what exactly is that and what events have ya'll held recently and how have you contributed? I think it is great that you can find the time to give back. Good luck this weekend
"Michael Waltrip: We've had fundraisers. Everything we've ever done, we give money to Motor Racing Outreach. They are here for us - they are here for our families, week in and week out. They are a wonderful Christian organization that makes life on the road much nicer. We've had golf tournaments, we had a party where we had our team there and a hundred different things and all of them MRO has benefited."
Sadly no-one asked Mr Waltrip for his views on the ongoing war on terror.
But if you want evidence of the importance of the internet to politics in the US, take a look at the sites of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. It's widely accepted that Howard Dean - despite not winning anything - has taken online campaigning to a new level. Take a look at the websites:
John Kerry has had to go some way to catch up, although there's a weblog at www.johnkerry.com, and again numerous unofficial sites. Kerry, though, as the front-runner, has been facing the other menace of the internet: the rumours that the mainstream press won't run but get momentum online. The Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com), mainly known for breaking the Monica Lewinsky story, has been touting unsubstantiated tales about Kerry and a nameless intern - and the claim that General Wesley Clark has been stirring these up.
Whether Drudge or anyone else can stand up this story remains to be seen. But one thing's clear: in the political battles for the Presidency and beyond, the online skirmish is here to stay.