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Political freelancers use Web to join the attack

In the 2008 presidential race, the first feeling the full force of the changes wrought by the Web, the most attention-grabbing Internet attacks are coming from outside the political world.
/ Source: The New York Times

The video blasted across the Internet, drawing political blood from Senator John McCain within a matter of days.

Produced here in a cluttered former motel behind the Sony Pictures lot, it juxtaposed harsh statements about Islam made by the Rev. Rod Parsley with statements from Mr. McCain praising Mr. Parsley, a conservative evangelical leader. The montage won notice on network newscasts this spring and ultimately helped lead Mr. McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, to reject Mr. Parsley’s earlier endorsement.

In previous elections, an attack like that would have come from party operatives, campaign researchers or the professional political hit men who orbit around them.

But in the 2008 race, the first in which campaigns are feeling the full force of the changes wrought by the Web, the most attention-grabbing attacks are increasingly coming from people outside the political world. In some cases they are amateurs operating with nothing but passion, a computer and a YouTube account, in other cases sophisticated media types with more elaborate resources but no campaign experience.

So it was with the Parsley video, which was the work of a 64-year-old film director, Robert Greenwald, and his small band of 20-something assistants. Once best known for films like “Xanadu” (with Olivia Newton-John) and the television movie “The Burning Bed” (with Farrah Fawcett), Mr. Greenwald shows how technology has dispersed the power to shape campaign narratives, potentially upending the way American presidential campaigns are fought.

Mr. Greenwald’s McCain videos, most of which portray the senator as contradicting himself in different settings, have been viewed more than five million times — more than Mr. McCain’s own campaign videos have been downloaded on YouTube.

“If you had told me we would have hit one million, I would have told you you were crazy,” said Mr. Greenwald, who said he had no ties to the Democratic Party or Senator Barack Obama’s campaign.

Cheap software, fast distribution
Four years ago, the Internet was a Wild West that caused the occasional headache for the campaigns but for the most part remained segregated from them. This year, the development of cheap new editing programs and fast video distribution through sites like YouTube has broken down the barriers, empowering a new generation of largely unregulated political warriors who can affect the campaign dialogue faster and with more impact than the traditional opposition research shops.

Already there are signs that these less formal and more individual efforts are filling a vacuum created by a decline in activity among the independent advocacy groups — so-called 527s and similar operations — that have played a large role in negative politics in the last several election cycles. Especially on the conservative side, independent groups have reported trouble raising money, and some of the biggest players from 2004 have signaled that they will sit it out this time around.

The shift has by no means gone unnoticed by the campaigns. And while strategists in both parties suspect that traditional political operatives affiliated with the campaigns or parties frequently pose as independent grassroots participants by hiding behind anonymous Web identities, few have been caught this year.

The change has added to the frenetic pace of the campaign this year. “It’s politics at the speed of Internet,” said Dan Carol, a strategist for Mr. Obama who was one of the young bulls on Bill Clinton’s vaunted rapid response team in 1992. “There’s just a lot of people who at a very low cost can do this stuff and don’t need a memo from HQ.”

Attacks from both wings
That would seem to apply to people like Robert Anderson, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina whose modest YouTube site features videos flattering to Mr. Obama and unflattering to Mr. McCain, or Paul Villarreal, who from his apartment in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has produced a harsh series of spots that attack Mr. Obama and make some claims that have been widely debunked.

Counting the audience for such videos can be tricky, as sites like YouTube list only the number of times they have been viewed, not the number of people who view them. That said, according to YouTube, Mr. Villarreal’s video was viewed about 50,000 times. And it cost him just $100 to produce, for software, he said. He said he had no connection to the Republican Party or the McCain campaign, though he said he had reached out to them and not heard back.

The better-circulated political videos have generally come from people with some production experience. One of the most widely seen anti-Obama videos was created by Jason Mitchell, who produces evangelical Christian programming in Durham, N.C.

A conservative-leaning version of YouTube called has recorded millions of hits on the video. But as is often the case with such videos, how many of the viewers come to sneer rather than applaud is hard to tell.

“Four years ago I would just be a ‘political activist,’ ” Mr. Mitchell said. “Now, they call me a ‘communications political strategist,’ and that’s only because of the Internet.”

Cost to make and send: $50
Mr. Mitchell, 29, said his cash expenses to make and distribute the segment were about $50, a fraction of the roughly $100,000 that it would cost to broadcast a 30-second spot on a television news program with an audience of a few million, like “Meet the Press.” “That’s dirt cheap for an ad,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Mr. Mitchell said he was motivated by what he said were deep-rooted misgivings about Mr. Obama on social issues, his level of experience and background. But it is unlikely any television station would have accepted the video if he had tried to run it.

The segment’s announcer notes that Mr. Obama’s father was Muslim, asserts that the candidate attended a Muslim grammar school in Indonesia for two years, and asks, “When we are at war with Islamic terrorism, can Americans elect a man with not one, not two, but three Islamic names?” One onscreen image shows Mr. Obama’s face morphed with that of Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Mitchell says he sticks close to the factual record, but the video has been widely criticized as over the line. Mr. Obama is a Christian. The school he attended in Indonesia was secular.

Three weeks ago, the Obama campaign started a Web site called “Fight the Smears” to, among other things, debunk portrayals of Mr. Obama as Muslim. It allows its users to e-mail the information easily to friends.

“What we’re really trying to do is knock down important things that are wrong, which also diminishes the power of the next set of rumors,” said Mr. Carol, the Obama aide.

Responding to negative attacks
With Web-based attacks proliferating, campaigns are leaving behind the assumption that to respond to highly negative or false accusations is to needlessly publicize them. “It poses a more complicated version of the age-old dilemma that campaigns always find themselves in,” said Phil Singer, who was the press secretary for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. “Do you address something head on and risk making it a mainstream phenomenon? Or ignore it and risk allowing it to take on a life of its own?”

The presidential campaign of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts developed an effective if labor intensive technique. It flooded YouTube with positive videos of Mr. Romney. “The new model of response is to dominate the market share of information about your candidate,” said Kevin Madden, Mr. Romney’s former press secretary.

Several Republican communications strategists, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that was precisely what Mr. McCain might have to do. He is coming under harsh attack on YouTube in videos that, some Republicans say, take his words out of context. A simple search of his name automatically produces several negative videos. Mr. Greenwald, whose shop is responsible for many of them, said he was determined to keep it that way.

With a budget of $900,000 from donations, Mr. Greenwald has built a mini-factory of anti-McCain propaganda at his firm, Brave New Films. He takes no payment for his efforts, which are regulated by laws governing nonprofit groups and include other subjects, like critiques of Fox News.

In a darkened room here, three young assistants edit digital images on equipment that barely takes up a full desk, trolling the Web for political news and culling through Mr. McCain’s past and present statements. A system of hard drives catalogs cable news.

A political awakening
Mr. Greenwald was not always so politically active. He gave money to politicians or groups sporadically, but was not among Hollywood’s elite donor class.

Mr. Greenwald said he had a political awakening after Sept. 11 and dedicated himself to making liberal films, an endeavor he said he could afford having been “lucky enough to have been majorly overpaid in commercial film and television relative to any rational measure.”

His highest impact has been with his video about Mr. Parsley. The montage was created with help from David Corn, Washington Bureau chief for Mother Jones, who unearthed video of Mr. Parsley inveighing against Islam and saying, “America was founded in part with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed.”

Mr. Greenwald’s team combined it with video of Mr. McCain calling Mr. Parsley, “one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide.” The montage spread quickly across liberal Web sites, and made its way onto ABC News. Mr. McCain released a statement rejecting Mr. Parsley’s endorsement shortly thereafter.

“For years I sat in conversations with people who said the only way we can be effective is we have to raise $1 billion and buy CBS,” Mr. Greenwald said. “Well, Google raised a couple of billion and bought YouTube, and it’s here for us, and it’s a huge, huge difference.”

This story, , originally appeared in The New York Times.