On Sunday, an anonymous contributor to the Republican activist Web site Lucianne.com posted an online incitement to riot. Arguing that "the Democrats are launching a national campaign of hate, ignorance and violence," the poster recommended using a software program called the Crusher to disrupt Democrat-affiliated Web sites.
The program worked, theoretically, by using a Web browser to send repeated "refresh" commands to selected Web sites. The goal: a so-called denial-of-service attack. If enough people used the program to send enough refresh orders to, say, Democrats.com, normal readers would be denied access to the site. The online mobilization of the Democratic masses would thus be halted in its tracks. Victory to the GOP in the battle for the commanding heights of cyberspace!
Not so fast. Lucianne Goldberg, founder of Lucianne.com, says the post was removed after it first appeared Sunday, and then twice again after repostings on Monday. "We took it down because we're a news site," says Goldberg, "and that's not news." Similarly, the Geocities Web page from which the software program could be downloaded was also pulled, after complaints from Democrats.com.
Listen closely, and you might be able to hear the sound of Republican cyber-guerrillas gnashing their teeth. Because, according to Democrats.com founder Bob Fertik, the sudden spike of traffic caused on Sunday by use of the program hardly impaired the site. The truth, he says, was quite the opposite.
"It generated a lot of hits," says Fertik, "which is good for our advertising. We'll make money on the deal."
One is tempted to paraphrase Marx: History repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as an Internet farce. Never mind the court fights and street protests in Florida, where lawyers and political operatives have pulled out their knives and are slicing at each other's jugulars. In the age of the Internet, we attack our enemies by striving to prevent them from viewing Web pages. Oh yeah, and we get to sign online petitions, too.
Yes, pick your side or your point of action -- there's a petition circulating to an in box near you. Are you a Democrat lusting for a Palm Beach County revote to truly express the will of the people? Head on over to Trustthepeople.com. Or are you a Republican who's convinced that the fat lady has already sung? Frontpagedailynews.com has the petition for you -- a request to certify the current vote. Do you think Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris should give Palm Beach County more time to count its votes? If that petition hasn't already arrived in your e-mail, then it no doubt will do so soon. Or does this beleaguered woman, now receiving the brunt of Democratic demonization, need your support? Meanwhile, the frothing conservatives who hang out at freerepublic.com are keeping their eagle eyes peeled for any sign of an online poll that is ripe for "freeping" -- a lovely new item of political jargon that describes the process of directing hundreds of simultaneous conservative votes to an online polling site so as to ensure that the "proper" result occurs.
Out of all the frenzy, there is one online initiative that seems to be worth more than the flimsy weight of the electrons used to zip it across the Net. At Trustthepeople.com, Palm Beach voters who feel that they may have mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore are encouraged to download a form that they can then print out, sign and mail to a local law firm as an affidavit asserting their belief that the election results in Palm Beach County are erroneous.
But what's the moral of that story? Hard copy counts, not online petitions. Ever since the emergence of the Internet, countless words have been spewed about its democratically empowering potential. But when push comes to shove, as it so clearly has in Florida, the Internet appears to be just one more medium crazily refracting the realities of the physically offline world. As much misinformation is being spread as verifiable facts. With so many online petitions to choose from, the value of any one diminishes into insignificance.
And as for actual activism? The call to block off Web sites espousing opposing views is just one more example of how lame Internet calls to action can be. And on this point, both Republicans and Democrats agree:
"These people are stupider than Palm Beach voters if they think they can get away with this," says Fertik.
"They're all cowards," says Goldberg. "This is just cheesy."