'Bait And Switch' Makes YouTube Trickier

Pity Todd Bosley.

Bosley, a county commissioner in rural Ohio, is an unwilling guinea pig in the latest experiment in spreading political attacks on YouTube.

In the past three months, more than 12,550 people have watched an attack ad on Bosley -- because the YouTube clip was disguised as a "video response" to "Vote Different," the homemade Barack Obama advertisement that became a sensation this spring and was watched by millions.

The ad is one of a steady stream of videos attacking Bosley, and its anonymous crafter is one of a growing number of political activists manipulating the architecture of the Web -- e-mail, videos and search engines -- in order to deceive. And as the players in national politics grow increasingly sophisticated online, there's little doubt that tactics bubbling up from local politics and commerce will make their way onto the national scene -- most potently, perhaps, in the heated days before an election.

As e-mail begat spam and online banking begat phishing for banking details, the new giants of search and video -- Google and its subsidiary YouTube -- have inspired political and commercial scammers to find new ways to give Internet users an experience they weren't exactly looking for.

"These are very real issues that Google needs to address before (the scams) take over the political world," said Republican media consultant David All.

As All points out, there's nothing new about turning the latest technology against the politicians who use it. In the 1980s, the dirty trick of choice was "blackfaxing," which involved faxing stacks of black construction paper to opponents to empty their ink cartridges and tie up their phone lines.

Most of the tricks that political campaigns are beginning to use on the Internet were pioneered in the more enterprising commercial sector, and nothing in politics has rivaled the havoc wreaked by a site called VotefortheWorst.com in helping prop up a weak contestant on the show "American Idol."

But political professionals say there are a variety of ways to game the new systems, and more are cropping up every day.

A campaign, for example, can instruct allies to click on the Google ads of a rival, running up their advertising costs (the search giant charges advertisers per click), though Google works to combat the practice.

Partisans have attempted to take advantage of YouTube's system of relying on reader feedback by complaining that a video is offensive and convincing the company to remove it from its site, as appears to have happened briefly with a clip of John McCain singing about bombing Iran.

And in his guide to YouTube for political campaigns, All outlines another one: combating a damaging video by "flooding the zone" with similarly titled clips, inoffensive or irrelevant videos that are labeled and tagged to misdirect searchers.

In Bosley's case, his anonymous critic, who didn't respond to an attempt to contact him or her through YouTube, began posting the attacks during a bitter 2006 election campaign, and continued afterward along the same lines.

More than 100 ads available on YouTube accuse him of everything from using foreign billiard tables to distributing scam diet pills; some have been viewed only a few times, others thousands.

The ads themselves are homemade and clumsy, with crude images and block text.

But their creator keyed in one simple feature of YouTube videos: the fact that each video is represented by an image from the exact middle of the clip.

In one case, Bosley's antagonist spliced an image from the popular "Vote Different" spot into the middle of an attack video; he posted his clip as a response on the popular thread.

But that wasn't the only sneak attack on the county commissioner.

In a more recent instance, an attack was posted in response to the popular "Crush on Obama" video that hit the We earlier this month, represented by an image from the video and the word "Remix" to leave the impression that it was about the presidential candidate, not an unknown Ohio county commissioner.

Another attack was presented as a video about "American Idol" contender Alaina Alexander.

YouTube's news and politics editor, Steve Grove, didn't respond to a request for comment on the Bosley videos. However, one account on which they had been posted was deleted from YouTube after an inquiry from a reporter.

For now, other videos can be seen here and here .

The Politico also captured one of the videos, and some elements of its deceptive presentation, here.

Bosley didn't respond to calls and an e-mail seeking his view of the videos, but Stark County Democratic Party Chairman Johnnie Maier Jr. said Bosley had not done anything to merit the attacks.

"He obviously has someone who dislikes him intensely," Maier said.

Curt Braden, chairman of the county Republican Party, said he didn't know who had created the videos.

"These questions that are posed are all questions that I guess should be asked," he said.

The Commissioner Bosley video series and its like, of course, are just a tiny fraction of the political video generated on the Internet. But some say YouTube could do more to clarify its booming new space.

"Interactive systems always invite spammers and tricksters … but if the designers of the system make it easier for the majority of users to filter the good stuff to the top and to hide the bad stuff, the system can be quite valuable nonetheless," said Micah Sifry, the co-founder of the Internet politics site TechPresident.com and a Politico contributor. Sifry said he wished YouTube's feedback system were more nuanced.

Still he, like YouTube officials, said that ultimately the users are likely to police the site themselves.

"The larger Internet ecosystem of bloggers and reporters seems to enjoy the scavenger hunt game a lot, and I think most 'dirty tricks' type videos -- especially any that gain serious traction -- will immediately get subjected to greater scrutiny," Sifry said.
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