SEATTLE – Laughing at political candidates can turn out to be serious business. Just ask Zack Exley.
His gwbush.com site, probably the best known parody of George W. Bush’s official campaign website, is now making money from banner ads and merchandise.
But his commercial success is only part of the story, according to Barbara Warnick, a communications professor at the University of Washington who has been studying parody websites in this year’s presidential campaign.
She believes parody sites – of which there are many – could actually be influencing voters.
“While many readers could freely sample site content and be entertained, they were (also) likely to be persuaded,” Warnick says in an as-yet-unpublished study.
Warnick found that as parody sites become more sophisticated, they are also becoming more influential, especially because almost a quarter of Internet users say they receive at least some of their information about the candidates online.
It’s still unclear whether the sophistication of the sites will result in fooling a segment of the voting population.
“The people who are most likely to be affected by parody sites are the ones whose opinions about the candidates are the least well-formed,” said Jan P. Vermeer, a political science professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Exley’s site, gwbush.com, is quite close in tone to the official georgewbush.com site, sounding so realistic that it offers a false sense of credibility.
Then again, the Bush campaign didn’t do itself any favors by drawing attention to the site.
The campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, which decided there were too many other, serious matters to bother with it.
But the notoriety attending the Bush campaign’s humorless reaction propelled Exley’s site, and others like it, to national prominence.
A number of the websites Warnick studied are not only wickedly funny, but technically advanced as well, keeping pace with the official sites they’re satirizing.
Georgybush.com is made up of song parodies in MP3 and Real Audio formats, produced by a number of Austin, Texas, musicians out to warn the world about the dangers of their governor.
Algore-2000.org is crafted to resemble the real site and loaded with streaming audio and video clips from real news sources.
The parody sites also appear to form a kind of online community, in which “they all tend to refer to each other in subtle ways,” Warnick said.
One Geocities website claims to present a compelling case, through numerologic analysis and spurious “biblical” quotations, that George W. Bush is the anti-Christ.
Tucker Eskew, a Bush spokesman in Austin who focuses on technology and Web issues, indicated the campaign had learned its lesson from the attempt to go after Exley’s site last year.
“Mean-spirited material is not always welcome, but we have no interest in doing anything more than making sure that voters have accurate and thorough information about Gov. Bush,” he said. “In the current environment, we believe the Internet is a net-plus of this campaign.”
Nebraska Wesleyan’s Vermeer said he believes the main effect of political parody sites is to reinforce the notion that politicians are “really buffoons.” Most likely, he said, the sites will turn more voters off to the process in general.
But Phil Klinkner, associate professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York said he thought the generally cynical attitude of voters was influencing the websites rather than the other way around.
“My guess is that people who go to IKnowWhatYouDidInTexas.com are probably people who are going to vote for Gore,” he said. “I can’t imagine many people who are (thinking), ‘Gee, I don’t know who to vote for, Gore or Bush?’ are going to be swayed by what they see.”