With FPPC Internet rules on horizon, Brown and Whitman experiment online
Who are Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown? Depends who you ask.
Jerryfails.com would have you believe Brown’s life amounts to nothing but “a career politician with a legacy of broken promises and failure.” Meg-a-Myths.com barely stops short of calling Whitman a pathological liar, with Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford explaining the site exists because “Whitman is either incapable or unwilling to tell the truth about Jerry Brown, California or herself. If she won’t, we will.”
Unveiling his Myths website last week marked Brown’s first foray into specialized campaign websites outside of his main jerrybrown.org page, and the most recent in a long string of campaign websites rolled out by the candidates – the vast majority from Whitman’s camp.
Whitman’s website-building pace far outstrips that of Brown, having rolled out sites targeting women, students, nurses, Latinos, and Chinese-speaking voters, in addition to maintaining her primary megwhitman.com site.
Both candidates for governor openly support their respective attack website and interpretation of the facts, plastering a little “Paid for by …” box at the bottom of each site. Brown’s snarky Myths website borders on kitsch, with a garish likeness of Whitman shoveling money into a television, while Whitman’s Jerryfails.com doesn’t stray far from traditional campaign web design.
Brown's Myths website invites visitors to "sign up for the truly perplexing myth mail!" (which has not sent any e-mails since I joined the mailing list Aug. 11) and purports to clear up the "top five Meg-a-Myths of all time!," which range from accusing Whitman of lying about an altercation with an eBay employee to shifting her stance on immigration reform.
Alternatively, Jerryfails.com seeks to make Brown appear a failed relic of the past. The site highlights his "failures" at keeping jobs, lowering spending and taxes, and fixing Oakland's schools, as well as a great little box in the right sidebar called, "Yep, Jerry Brown said it …" The gems in this box vary with each view of the website and proffer out-of-context quotes, several from more than 30 years ago, such as “We’re going to move left and right at the same time,” and “Being governor is a pain in the ass.”
Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at CSU Sacramento, credits Barack Obama for California’s proliferation of campaign websites.
“Everybody thinks they have to maintain a Web presence and make it interactive and very frequent because of the Obama experience in ’08,” O’Connor says. “It is the newer voters. They tend to be young. Geekier. They are less partisan, and they’re more issue-centric. Everybody is going after that group.”
However, O’Connor isn’t certain whether Whitman and Brown’s efforts are necessarily paying off, citing the “clutter” of the campaign. She says Obama’s campaign was “very disciplined in its message” – something she doesn’t see in the state gubernatorial campaign.
“Every bright young (political) consultant in the world is experimenting. And whether voters act on that experimentation is unknown,” O’Connor says. “You have to have a coherent communication strategy, and the frustration is as you turn all these various campaign consultants loose in any campaign, you lose sight of what the coherent strategy is.”
Campaign finance reports show Whitman’s campaign has poured nearly $10 million into at least 56 campaign consultants as of early August, while Jerry Brown has put a comparatively paltry $128,000 toward five consultants, two of whom are his campaign manager and spokesman.
O’Connor says Internet political campaigning is in a “wild West” stage, with no vigilantes in sight to regulate candidates trying to make their material go viral on social media, as did Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina’s "demon sheep" advertisement earlier this year.
A subcommittee of the California Fair Political Practices Commission met Aug. 12 to discuss ways to tame the unregulated world of paid political Twitter, Facebook and blogging operatives.
The FPPC committee report (available in full below) created four principles and eight specific recommendations to guide political Internet activity, including:
- Paid advertising on the Internet should be subject to the same disclosure requirements applied to advertising that is printed or broadcast (i.e., e-mail should be treated as regular postal mail).
- Bloggers and others compensated to produce online content should reveal that information on their websites as a good practice.
- Uncompensated political activity online should be exempted from regulation to the extent possible.
O’Connor testified to the subcommittee, and says new Internet disclosure regulations won’t be in effect by this fall, but predicts they will come soon.
“California will be a leader in it. Clearly a time is coming when those messages are politically sponsored. A Facebook ad is pretty easy to monetize,” she said. “The Twitter stuff is a little tougher, and bloggers paid by campaigns are tougher yet. Somehow you have to monetize it under campaign expenditures in order for FPPC laws to be relative in this day and age.”
In the months before Election Day, O’Connor says the candidates will need to unify their Internet messages to grab the attention of the all-important undecided voters, instead of “talking to each other and the political junkies.”
“The good thing is voters don’t really pay attention until after Labor Day,” O’Connor said, adding that too many advertisements or clever websites can harm a candidate’s appeal. “Jerry may be the beneficiary of that since he’s not all over the place. The strategy may be easier to crystallize in September.”
But, just as the West wasn’t tamed overnight, it will certainly take time to craft regulations that retain their relevance through future adaptations of Facebook, Twitter and whatever social media website comes next.