Rick Santorum and his Google problem: Are digital dirty tricks here to stay?

The dispute over the scatological website set up following remarks Rick Santorum made back in 2003 highlights what some see as ethical concerns over the political use of the Internet.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Rick Santorum leaves a campaign rally in Keene, N.H. on Friday.
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Even as Rick Santorum rises in Republican primary polls, his so-called “Google problem” just won’t go away.

While he struggles to shut down the website of scatological material that pops up during a search on his last name, media experts and political strategists warn that this is just a hint of things to come.

“We are in the infancy of digital dirty tricks,” says David Johnson, a Republican strategist based in Atlanta who worked on Sen. Robert Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign. “The technologically savvy are only going to get better at using the Internet to attack political foes,” he says, and the “unwary public who believe everything they see or search for on the Internet are the ones who will be impacted.”

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Mr. Santorum’s cybertroubles began back in 2003 when, during an interview with the Associated Press, he compared homosexuality with bestiality and bigamy. (Sound familiar? He just got booed at a college forum in New Hampshire Thursday for comparing gay marriage with polygamy.) Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage took offense at the remarks and created the scatological website as well as a slew of secondary sites that help direct traffic to the primary website. A Google query still brings up – in first or second place – what the former Pennsylvania senator has called a site so offensive he cannot allow his children to search for his name on the Internet.

Santorum has asked Google to filter offensive results from searches on his name. But according to a Google spokesperson, "Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Web. Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly.”

Pro-family activist Peter LaBarbera on Thursday appealed to Mr. Savage to take down the site. The columnist responded via the Politico.com website using his iPhone: "Just gonna keep doing what we've been doing since 2003.”

Paul Levinson, Fordham University professor and author of “New New Media,” says he is no apologist for the Republican presidential candidate, but he is concerned about the public trust in the functioning of the Internet.

“Satire is an important poltical tool, but this goes way beyond that because a play or a cartoon is something that people choose to view,” he says. Directing users to a website under false pretenses, however, is another thing, he notes. “I can just imagine a fourth-grader searching for Santorum for his homework and coming on this site," he says. "It is not appropriate for that search to yield material like this.”

Santorum's Google problem does bring up some serious ethical issues, says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Abusing the search privilege is a form of Internet fraud and compromises the integrity of the Internet as a whole. As such, it is a potentially serious problem for all users of the Internet.”

But these concerns must be balanced by the important leveling of the playing field offered by the Internet, says Lori Brown, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “Santorum chose to make these comments about gays that he knew would be reported and probably knew would be seen as homophobic by many,” she says via e-mail.

The placing of the content about Santorum that is now part of search engine results is an organized response to his comments, she notes, adding that the material is a collective response to offensive statements from a politician. “He has a much larger microphone than the average citizen, and this is a way to have a big microphone to respond to him,” she says. “This is a political action by people offended to a political statement, and all politicians should be aware now that the public has tools like these to protest.” 

As for the technologically unsophisticated Internet user, she suggests that manipulated search results will not be an issue for the upcoming Internet-weaned generation.

“My guess is that the biggest issue for Santorum in the national election will be less that people associate him with this term, but rather that he is – and will be seen quickly by those who are technologically savvy (especially younger voters) as being – uncool," she adds.

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