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23 October 2004




Trolling in Clark County

The Guardian's Clark County campaign was always going to be a firey one. The idea was to get Brits to send emails to swing-state voters and persuade them to vote for ... well, it wasn't specified - but likely to be Kerry given the Guardian's readership. They got lots of hostile responses and the server was hacked. Americans were outraged at the meddlin' by the damn Limeys.

It should be pointed out that the Guardian asked the writers to be polite and courteous, and consider how they would feel if they received such a letter. We don't know if the Brits writing the letters obeyed this request, and I think it's remiss of the Guardian to not publish the provoking letter when a hostile response is received.

Whatever the intent, it certainly wasn't presented as a go-get-em campaign like, say, a Guy Kawasaki-era deployment of the Mac fanbase (pardon the nerdy analogy).

Anyway at first glance it does seem a bit tacky, and I wonder about my own reaction, had I been a Clark County resident and received a letter from a Brit intended to influence my vote. When people get upset it's sometimes instructive to play a what-if game, in order to determine exactly what it is that upsets them. So:

  • What if it was The Times instead of the Guardian? Would I be upset because of the different political orientation of the paper (and, by extension, it's readers)?
  • What if it was a US newspaper targetting Clark County? Is this still "meddling"? Is the fact that they are foreign the upsetting thing?
  • (zooming in on the foreign aspect) So what if the newspaper specifically targetted ex-pats living in the UK? Would it be OK then?
  • What if this was just an outright advertisement for Kerry? Isn't that also 'meddling'? Is the upsetting thing the fact that they asked their readership to do the work, instead of doing it themselves? Isn't this like ClearChannel organizing support-the-war^H^H^Htroops rallys? (Warning: explicit images)
  • What if it were not a newspaper? Maybe a non-profit organization? Amnesty International conducts letter-writing campaigns all the time.
  • Is this just blatant Anglophobia? What if this campaign was by a hypothetical Saddam-era Iraqi newspaper trying to get Iraqis to persuade Americans to vote for Bush? Alternatively: are Cubans allowed to persuade Americans to support Bush? Would that be OK?

I would like to think that after a bit of thought I would react to the letter purely on ideological grounds. If they wanted me to vote A when I was intending B, I would probably respond with a list of reasons why I prefer B over A.

Just to be clear I think there are many things to dislike about the Guardian's campaign here: it's a bit of a stunt, and not likely to change anything. And should they even have these voter's email addresses in the first place? The one complaint that I don't share is the idea that they are in some way 'meddling'.

Can Clark County residents not be persuaded to change their votes? Of course they can. Is this meddling, in the general case? Of course not, otherwise there would be no election campaign. Meddling implies, to me anyway, that the target has no option but to obey - and I think the Clark County residents have proven that they are not in this category.