This post is part of "Cybersecurity and Election Interference," a Brookings series that explores digital threats to American democracy, cybersecurity risks in elections, and ways to mitigate possible problems.
In America today, outrageous lies, doctored videos, and impostors try to influence elections alongside legitimate news and direct campaign communications from would-be leaders. But dirty tricks are nothing new. While the medium may be different, the goals are as old as elections themselves. Thus it is fitting to begin working on the problem of defending democracy in the internet age by trying to understand the world of dirty tricks in the pre-internet age.
To do that, we should distinguish between dirty tricks and negative campaigning, including attack ads and contrast ads. The latter may be offensive but they are based on something that is true as opposed to something that is a wholesale fabrication. For instance, let’s take one of the most infamous ads from the 1988 presidential campaign pitting Vice President George H.W. Bush (R) against Governor Michael Dukakis (D): the Willie Horton ad. It has gone down in history as one of the more offensive and racially incendiary ads ever. Willie Horton, a black prisoner convicted of murder, was released on a prison furlough program in Massachusetts. While out on furlough he kidnapped a young couple, stabbed the man and raped the woman. The ad features a scary photo of Willie Horton and under a photo of Michael Dukakis it says “Allowed Murderers to have Weekend Passes.” The weekend furlough program was created in 1972 under a Republican Governor as the result of a court decision. Dukakis himself defended it.
But both the program and Willie Horton were real. The circumstances surrounding the crime were accurately described, the visual image was true to life even if sensationalized, and there were numerous news stories attesting to the facts of the case.
The incident illustrates how the difference between dirty tricks and negative campaigning is that dirty tricks are complete lies.
Nothing about Pizzagate was real. There was no sex ring, no coded messages, and no children being held against their will at the pizza place. All the supposed “facts” spread in this story were completely fabricated. The incident illustrates how the difference between dirty tricks and negative campaigning is that dirty tricks are complete lies. The political journalist David Mark makes a similar distinction: “First, I want to distinguish negative campaigning—charges and accusations that, while often distorted, contain at least a kernel of truth—from dirty tricks or cheating.”
To understand the world of dirty tricks it helps to understand their function in the context of an election. Elections are fought over a finite period of time—Election Day is the endpoint—and public interest increases as Election Day approaches. Unlike a dirty trick against a corporation, which might be remedied in time for a product to rebound, a dirty trick timed to occur before the election can have a definitive impact even if it is proven to be false. The ramifications can be enormous because U.S. elections cannot be re-run.
A brief summary of some of the dirty tricks in American elections shows that they tend to have the following objectives:
- create doubt around a candidate’s character;
- confuse the voters about the election;
- break into the opponent’s sphere and get information on them;
- affect the actual outcome by interfering with the counting process.
Sex has long been a favorite topic of the dirty trick. In the early 1800’s politics was no less suffused with innuendo than today. Among the most salacious stories were those penned by the partisan journalist James Callender, who alleged in a series of articles that Thomas Jefferson had fathered several children with his young slave, Sally Hemings. For nearly two centuries this was held up as an early example of dirty campaigning. In 1998, thanks to DNA testing, it turned out that Thomas Jefferson had indeed fathered illegitimate children with his slave.
Two centuries later, the combination of illicit sex and race was still the ideal fodder for the creation of a dirty trick. In the 2000 Republican presidential primary then-Governor George Bush of Texas was running against Senator John McCain of Arizona. McCain won the New Hampshire primary and the race went on to South Carolina where the Bush campaign knew they had to stop McCain. Using a tried and true strategy, the phony poll, opponents of McCain spread a complete falsehood. Phone calls to South Carolina Republican voters asked “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain… if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” McCain and his wife Cindy had adopted a dark-skinned girl from Bangladesh in 1991 and that child, Bridget, was campaigning with them in South Carolina.
Confronted with attacks on their wives and children, candidates have a hard time defending themselves. McCain was distraught at this attack and his efforts to fight back only made his situation worse. He lost the South Carolina primary and the nomination.
For much of American history, being gay was a non-starter for a politician. As early as 1836 the hero Davy Crocket wrote that presidential candidate Martin Van Buren was “laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the rest of them.” The famous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spread rumors that the 1950s Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was gay; ironically, Hoover has been the subject of much rumor and speculation about his sexuality. New York City was the first city which stood up to this tactic. In the 1977 mayoral primary placards appeared out of nowhere that read “vote for Cuomo, not the homo,” in reference to Mario Cuomo. Cuomo’s opponent Ed Koch won the primary and never directly addressed the rumors about his sexual orientation. These days this line of attack seems almost quaint given the large number of openly gay elected officials, but being a closeted gay seemed a sure way to catch the ire of both the gay and straight community.
Even if a lie is too outrageous for most people to believe, in a tight race only a very small fraction of the electorate needs to believe it.
One of the many problems with complete lies attacking the candidate’s character is that they are sometimes so outrageous that the campaign refuses to take them seriously. Or, the campaign knows they are a threat but doesn’t want to increase the reach of the dirty trick by giving the lie even more publicity. However, even if a lie is too outrageous for most people to believe, in a tight race only a very small fraction of the electorate needs to believe it. And big lies remind people of the old saying “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” A story that is not plausible on its face may still prompt some to believe that something is wrong with the candidate.
Nearly all of these problems surfaced with the “swift boat” campaign against Senator John Kerry. Kerry had served in Vietnam and was awarded a purple heart, a bronze star and a silver star. In 2004, his service and his heroism in war stood in contrast to President Bush, who had not gone to Vietnam and who got into the Air National Guard through his political connections. Sowing doubt about Kerry’s war record was important to the Bush campaign. In the spring of 2004 a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, composed of Vietnam veterans who claimed to have been with Kerry during the incidents he was awarded medals for, began to hold press conferences and buy television ads questioning each of his medals. A long-time critic of John Kerry (for his later public opposition to the Vietnam War) wrote a book about Kerry called “Unfit for command.”
The Kerry campaign’s reaction was slow and ineffectual. His top consultants kept restraining him from hitting back out of fear that he would look angry and that it would add even more fuel to the fire. And yet they sorely misjudged the impact the ongoing story was having on cable news during the critical month of August 2004. I was asked to be on Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News during this time. I was not in the Kerry Campaign but as a Democrat was expected to defend him. I asked the campaign for its take on the issue and found there was no response. Susan Estrich, another Democrat, was asked to be on Hannity and Colmes to talk about the ads and had the same experience—there was no help from the campaign.
A review of Kerry’s war record was conducted by the Navy in September of 2004 and found that the medals were all properly awarded. And Bush himself eventually disavowed the group, but the damage had been done. The big lie only has to sow doubt and the closer the race the more impact it can have.
Confusing the voters
Attempting to confuse the voters is another tried and true characteristic of the dirty trick. Sometimes this is inadvertent but nonetheless critical; the best example being the confusing “butterfly” ballot design that caused voters in the 2000 presidential election in Florida to vote for Al Gore and Republican Pat Buchanan or Al Gore and Socialist David McReynold—thus invalidating their ballots.
But at other times it is intentional. An early example of intentionally confusing the voters comes from John F. Kennedy’s first run for Congress in 1946 in Boston. In Boston then (and now), the two dominant ethnic groups were Irish and Italian and the state was heavily Democratic—meaning that winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the general election. Kennedy, Irish, was running in the Democratic primary against a Boston City Councilor named Joe Russo, an Italian. Kennedy’s father, Joe, allegedly paid another Joseph Russo (this one a custodian with no political experience) to also run in the primary in hopes of splitting the non-Kennedy vote.
Another way to confuse the voters is to populate the ballot with third-party candidates who are recruited for the express purpose of siphoning votes from the major party. In 2010 a Republican dirty trickster in Arizona got friendly with a group of homeless people and recruited them to run on the Green Party ticket for a variety of offices. Among them were a tarot card reader with less than a dollar to his name who was signed up to run for State Treasurer, a homeless man who went by “Grandpa” on the streets who was recruited to run for the State Senate, and a young street musician who was recruited to run for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission. Democrats and Green party officials were furious and filed a lawsuit but failed to get the fake candidates’ names off the ballot.
Another tried-and-true dirty trick is to attempt to confuse the voters about important election dates.
Another tried-and-true dirty trick is to attempt to confuse the voters about important election dates. In the 2018 election Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY) sent out flyers telling his constituents that they had to return their absentee ballots by November 6. The actual deadline was November 5 and ballots received after that were not counted. Democrats were suspicious that the “mistake” was meant to keep students from voting but Zeldin’s campaign denied any wrongdoing and provided a statement from the printer also saying it was a mistake. The problem was that the Zeldin campaign made the same “mistake” in 2016 as well, fueling suspicion that this was a dirty trick.
In 2012 Wisconsin Democrats, furious over Republican Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on public-sector unions, mounted a successful recall petition creating a new election. The 2012 recall election was contested between Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett. As the June 5, 2012 primary date approached, voters reported receiving robocalls (a favorite tool of dirty tricksters) that told voters that if they had signed recall petitions they were not required to vote in the recall election. Walker won the race with 53 percent of the vote.
Breaking and entering
As we now know, breaking and entering can be physical or digital. The most famous physical breaking and entering was the break-in at Democratic National Committee Headquarters on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate Building in Washington D.C. This began a two-year-long investigation that revealed how President Richard Nixon’s CREEP (the appropriate acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President) used a wide range of dirty tricks to assure Nixon’s re-election in 1972. Because the burglary was bungled and immediately publicized in the Washington Post, we’ll never know what sorts of information the burglars were after or how they intended to use it in the fall campaign. But the unraveling of that break-in revealed other break-ins—including the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office—and a plethora of dirty tricks carried out by the “plumbers,” a group dedicated to finding dirt on Nixon’s opponents.
In 2016 a group of Russians, known as the Internet Research Agency, broke into the Democratic National Committee’s email system and into the Clinton campaign’s email system. They released this information to Wikileaks, who released it to the world in time for the start of the Democratic Convention. The information was damaging enough to cause the resignation of the DNC Chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and to spread discontent among supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders just when the party should have been uniting for the general election.
Interfering with the election and the count
Fraudulent election activity is certainly not new to American politics. In the era of big-city political machines it was not unusual to “vote the dead”—have someone go to the polls and vote using the identity of someone who had died. And over the years, candidates and parties have engaged in all sorts of voter fraud—from paying people to vote who had already voted or who were pretending to be someone else to reporting precinct totals with intentional “errors.”
In his first run for the United States Senate, Lyndon Johnson, who was later to become president, lost the Democratic primary (that was all you had to win to win Texas in those days) amidst reports of widespread voter fraud. And so, as the story goes, when Johnson got the chance to run again in 1948 against former Governor Coke Stevenson, he was determined to play the game as it was currently played in Texas. The race became humorously known as the “87 vote landslide.” That was Johnson’s margin, totally the result of a late-reporting precinct from the town of Alice, Texas. Apparently 202 Mexican-American voters, some deceased or absent from the county on election day lined up at the last minute to cast their votes for Johnson. The ballot box from precinct 13 has mysteriously disappeared and is still sought after.
Every dirty trick that was possible before the internet is possible today. The biggest difference is that they are cheaper, faster and easier to hide.
Fast-forward to the internet age
Every dirty trick that was possible before the internet is possible today. The biggest difference is that they are cheaper, faster and easier to hide. As we saw in 2016, the Russians threw a lot of false information about Hillary Clinton to the voters. In addition to the aforementioned “pizzagate,” they told targeted voters (especially Bernie Sanders’ supporters) that Hillary had Parkinson’s disease, that she was involved in al-Qaida, that she had murdered political opponents, that she used a body double, that she had made a small fortune arming ISIS and that she gave the order to leave four men in Benghazi.
Character assassination, no matter how far-fetched, has always found its way into political campaigns. In this century “deep-fakes,” the use of audio and video to make it seem as if a candidate is saying or doing something that they didn’t do, will make character assassination even more potent. Although the video making Speaker Nancy Pelosi look as if she were drunk was quickly revealed to be doctored, it had been viewed more than 2 million times by the time major news outlets were reporting it to be a fake. Facebook refused to take it down in spite of admitting it was a fake. And as of this writing we still don’t know and probably won’t know who doctored the video.
Spreading information designed to confuse the voters, breaking and entering, and interfering with the transmission of election results were all invented long before computers were invented. But now, the low cost of a dirty trick, the difficulty of holding someone accountable and the sheer speed with which a character assassination or a misleading bit of information can travel, makes these threats to democracy more urgent than ever. In the essays that follow we will be exploring different aspects of the cyber threat to elections and options for protecting our democracy.
 Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) page 2.
 Given the near total preponderance of men in American electoral history there have been fewer allegations of lesbianism.
 See Chapter 6 in Election 2004: How Bush Cheney ’04 won and what you can expect in the future, by Evan Thomas and the Staff of Newsweek. (Public Affairs, 2004) for a description of the Kerry campaign’s inept response.
 Daniel Ellsberg was a critic of the Vietnam War who leaked “The Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times. The “plumbers” broke into his psychiatrist’s office hoping to find evidence of drug use or of a sex scandal.