Celebrating 20 Years of Fake Campaign Websites

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Photo: Courtesy of Berghel.net

Don’t go to HillaryClinton.org if you want to learn more about the former secretary of State’s probable presidential campaign. As Reuters reported yesterday, the site isn’t owned by Clinton — and contains non-base-exciting malware. Votehillary.com, votejeb.com, and votewalker.com are all owned by a Boca Raton orthodontist who collects thousands of political-themed domain names.

One cybersecurity executive told Reuters, “Welcome to the Wild Wild West of the Internet.” Unfortunately the salutation is long overdue, as annoying or amusing fake campaign websites will celebrate their 20th anniversary of poltergeist-ish high jinks in 2016.

The New York Times first wrote about fake campaign websites in 1995, run by what it called a “growing army of latter-day Thomas Paines.” A website about Pat Buchanan featured an American flag with a swastika instead of 50 stars. NewtWatch’s homepage had a Photoshopped image of the Speaker of the House talking to an extraterrestrial. There were several parody websites concerning Bob Dole. Dole96.org stood out, with their fruit-inspired homage to the candidate. 

Bob Dole is often mixed up with the Dole fruit company. In fact, there is no connection between the two, except maybe that Dole (the Senator) is a big fan of tropical fruits, especially slightly overripe bananas that are just starting to turn black on the outside, but which are not so black and mushy as to be inedible. Sorry, we’re new at this Web thing. Anyways, Bob Dole is a staunch Republican. Which is a good thing, what with all those weenies out there challenging him for what is rightfully his — the Republican nomination.”

Two years later, there was a new campaign website everyone was talking about. It wasn’t fake, but the “Marvin the Dog Chat Room” may have led people to doubt it. Jeb Bush was running for governor, and the Times wrote that his website, “known as the ”Jeb site,” it is the envy of Internet political consultants.”

The latest innovation scheduled to go live on the site sometime this summer is the Marvin the Dog Chat Room, where visitors can converse with the Bush family pet. Marvin is also featured in television ads, and plans for the Web site include adding video clips of the dog in action. Of course, in regard to the chat room feature, Mr. Bush had a confession. ”I think someone will interpret for Marvin,” he said.

However, things have undoubtedly gotten more confusing in the 21st century. Fake websites for real candidates have now been joined by real websites for fake candidates and fake websites funded by real political entities. During last year’s midterm elections, the National Republican Congressional Committee built several websites that looked like campaign materials put up by Democratic candidates it was hoping to beat, until it became clear that the websites didn’t have anything nice to say about the candidates in the domain name. In Iowa last year, Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s campaign built a fake website about his opponent. In 2012, the Democratic National Committee created a website that looked like it belonged to the Romney campaign … but said mean things about the candidate’s tax plan. In the outrageously expensive and closely watched Senate race in Kentucky last year, you could read online about candidate Gil Fulbright, who wasn’t actually running and just trying to point out how awful the race was. 

And internet jokesters have clearly been preparing for 2016 pranks for ages, seeing as so many of the possible domain names candidates could use were bought ages ago. When Senator Ted Cruz announced his presidential campaign last week, some noticed that tedcruzforamerica.com redirects to Healthcare.gov — which will be useful when Cruz has to sign up for new insurance

So join us in celebrating 20 years of every day being April Fools’ Day for electoral politics on the internet.