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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Free Speech, Dirty Politics, Or Both?

For those who are interested in issues of the use and abuse of the Internet, questions of anonymity, and so on, here's an interesting story from the Hartford Advocate about the use of Twitter accounts and web sites set up by state Republicans in the name of various Democratic representatives in the state.  Here's a snippet:

Twitter, Inc., shut down 33 fake Twitter accounts created by Republicans using the names of Democratic state representatives. The Republican scheme was to send out posts under the Democrats' names mocking the liberal tax-and-spend bastards.

"That's unfortunate," was state Republican Chairman Chris Healy's response when told of Twitter, Inc.'s decision. "I'm not quite sure what the issue is, other than that the Democrats were successful in stopping free speech."

Healy's party may have suffered a setback with the loss of its Twitter campaign, but Republicans are still operating the 33 Web sites they created using the names of those same Democratic lawmakers. As far as anyone knows, this is the first time any state party has used such a tactic to mock its state opponents.

Healy, who gives some of the best quote I have seen in a while, also argues in response to Twitter, "That's not impersonation; that's satire."

Whether this is cheap politics or not is a different question than whether Healy's characterization is right.  I haven't seen the Twitter posts, so I can't say whether they are openly satirical or whether they deliberately attempt to mislead readers into believing the posts were issued by the Democratic representatives.  If it's the latter, clearly that is obviously wrong.  Moreover, since they apparently violated Twitter policy, Healy's argument that the "Democrats were successful in stopping free speech" is both wrong and another example of the ways in which free speech is misinvoked in regular public discourse. 

The Web sites, on the other hand, at least on the evidence of the one I visited, look pretty clearly like sites about and against their targets, and refer to them in the third person, so I think these can more safely be said to be clearly recognizable as satire.  The fact that they include the representatives' names in the site address (e.g., "Meet Joe Blow") doesn't lead to any real risk of confusion, in my view.  It may or may not be unsavory politics, but it's hardly clearly illegitimate.   

One last taste of Healy:

"The truth will eventually come out [about such ploys as the GOP's anti-Democratic sites]," Hancock added. He said the GOP scheme will backfire "if the Republicans are being viewed as playing dirty tricks, dirty politics."

Healy is unrepentant: "I really don't care what a bunch of college professors from liberal colleges think."


Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 28, 2009 at 09:46 AM | Permalink

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