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Rick Santorum vs. the internet

Last modified: 6/12/2011 12:00:00 AM
Shortly before launching his presidential bid Monday, Rick Santorum used Twitter to declare himself "ready to lead." In the days that followed, his Facebook page and campaign website were updated regularly, and hundreds of news outlets published stories online about his political ambitions.

But for anyone who searched Google for "Santorum," those weren't the first items they saw.

Instead, they found an encyclopedia of risque digital parodies, many with names and content too crass to publish in this newspaper. The less vulgar include a Twitter account belonging to "Freaky Rick Santorum," a Facebook page aggregating unfavorable coverage, a photo with the candidate's head superimposed on a man wearing leather chaps and, at the very top of the search results, a website that has helped turn the word "santorum" into sexual slang.

These efforts stem from a prank pulled by gay-rights activists nearly a decade ago after Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, likened homosexuality to bigamy, incest and bestiality. While this case is extreme - and uncomfortable to anyone averse to toilet humor - it's an interesting study in modern politicking. Campaigns have dozens of digital tools to broadcast their messages directly to voters, but those same unfiltered channels are available to anyone who takes issue with a candidate.

"These tactics predate electronics," said Scott Spradling, a veteran WMUR political reporter who now handles marketing, public relations and other projects through the Spradling Group. "This is the new way in which you communicate, so it's the new weapon."

Santorum is far from the only politician mocked regularly online, but his situation is unique for its longevity. It dates back to 2003, a year before Facebook's creation and three years before Twitter, when cell phone cameras were a novelty and bloggers still spent a lot of time explaining what, exactly, they do. Massachusetts had yet to allow same-sex marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of a Texas anti-sodomy law.

That April, during an interview with the Associated Press, Santorum discussed the case, saying, "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. . . . The definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."

At the time, Santorum was halfway through a term as a U.S. senator and was among the top-ranking Republicans in Congress. His remarks enraged gay-rights groups and inspired sex columnist Dan Savage to organize a contest to create an alternative definition for "santorum." The winner was a noun that describes a byproduct of anal sex. Savage promoted the new vocabulary word through a website called spreadingsantorum.com which soon appeared at the top of any Google search for "Rick Santorum."

In online lingo, this type of phenomenon is called a "Google bomb," an organized effort to influence search engine results by driving web traffic to certain sites. The mechanics behind it are complex and based on algorithms, keywords and hyperlinks, but the effect can be dramatic. Examples include making a profile of Tony Blair appear when users searched for the word "liar" or sending web surfers to a biography of George W. Bush when they entered the phrase "miserable failure."

Santorum lost re-election in 2006, but the websites remained popular and the word "santorum" crept into the vocabulary. It's been the subject of an academic paper on linguistic evolution and used in books and articles about human sexuality, internet culture and gay issues. The term is defined on the Urban Dictionary website and has a Wikipedia entry as thoroughly researched as the one about the former senator himself.

Since Santorum announced his intentions to seek the 2012 GOP nomination, multiple political writers have explored what Roll Call deemed his "Google problem," and primary watchers have theorized that new coverage of his campaign will eventually overpower the parodies. In the last month, thousands of articles about Santorum have been published online, but the lower-case "santorum" has garnered attention too, through Twitter, Facebook and assorted blogs.

Yesterday afternoon, a Google search for "Rick Santorum" yielded roughly 5.2 million hits. The top two results lead to spreadingsantorum.com. The campaign's website, ricksantorum.com, was ranked fifth.

Still, Santorum's staff remains optimistic about their ability to use digital media in a positive way. The campaign is among the most active online, frequently posting photos, videos, links to policy statements and information about ways to donate.

"Our social networking goal is not to worry about people who work to distort Sen. Santorum's record but rather to rally those who support him," National Political Director Mike Biundo said in a written statement.

The bogus websites, he said, are "vicious and juvenile tactics. . . . When you stand up and fight with the courage of convictions just as Sen. Santorum does, people unfortunately will attack you. Sen. Santorum has been a passionate voice for defending traditional families, reining in reckless spending in Washington, D.C. and supporting a strong national defense."

Local Santorum supporters believe he'll be able to win over voters regardless of what shows up on Google. Bill Boyd, a town councilman in Merrimack, isn't thrilled about the fake sites, but he says they're part of living in America.

"Do we like what we read? No, but this is what the country is all about," he said. "Somebody is just expressing a very, for lack of a better term, unsavory comment about the senator."

Boyd wonders if the prank could actually turn into a boon.

"You could have somebody who gets so enraged that someone would actually do something like that, they might be compelled to write a check . . . or get involved," he said.

Chances are, any money donated to a modern campaign will help with online efforts. Colin Van Ostern managed Democrat Ann McLane Kuster's congressional campaign last year and remembers the work that went into maintaining a strong digital presence.

Santorum's online troubles are embarrassing, Van Ostern said, but a more serious issue arises when legitimate but unfavorable coverage about a candidate receives enough attention to appear at the top of search results. Campaigns can use ads, social media and other tools to boost their online visibility, but it's difficult to fight the googling masses.

"The beautiful thing about the internet is that it's the ultimate democracy," Van Ostern said. "If you have tens of thousands of people who are writing about you, linking to positive articles about you, that volume will lead to what other people will see."

That type of online activism might be turning in Santorum's favor. A few days ago, a new Facebook page appeared called "Fixing Rick Santorum's Google Problem." It's full of links to his legitimate websites and social media accounts, and this is its rallying cry:

"What we can do as Christians is to fight back with a Google-bombing campaign of our own. We need to post as many links as we can to www.RickSantorum.com (his real site). . . . If you have control over any websites, blogs, facebook pages, or anything like that, post a link to www.RickSantorum.com, and help fight back against the gay agenda."


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