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Innocent Until Googled Guilty

I am a victim of internet injustice.

Last week the CBS news program “60 Minutes” ran a segment raising new questions about President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.  The report was based on documents alleged to have come from the personal files of the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer in Texas.

The authenticity of those documents has been challenged, but CBS reported that a college professor named Robert Strong, a friend and former colleague of Killian, believes the documents to be genuine.

This is where I come in.

My name is Robert Strong and I am indeed a college professor.  I am not, however, the Professor Strong who spoke to CBS.  I never met Mr. Killian, I never lived in Texas, and I never served in that state’s Air National Guard.  But on the internet none of this matters.

Ever since the “60 Minutes” broadcast I have been getting angry emails from Bush supporters who are sure that I am a key player in a vast left wing conspiracy bent on diminishing the president’s not very extraordinary record of military service.

How did I become the enemy de jour of all those spiteful Republicans?  I cannot be sure, but I am guessing that it has something to do with Google.

Last week, if you typed the words “Professor Robert Strong” in the popular search engine, a web page that happens to be about me appeared at the top of the list.  For those who have been filling my email inbox with vicious vitriol that was apparently evidence enough.  CBS says that it’s Bush-bashing documents have been authenticated by Professor Strong; Google tells everyone on the internet that I am Professor Strong. That’s it.  I am guilty as googled.

At first, I found all of this a little bit funny.  Here I was in the midst of my 15 minutes of fame and it was just a case of mistaken identity.  But the more emails I read, the less amused I became.  These messages are not like your run of the mill unwanted email.  The meat they contain is more raw and distasteful than any spam I have ever encountered.

Who are these people? They obviously have the time to find my email address on the internet, but lack the courtesy to inquire if I am the person they heard about on television.  They are clearly not happy about what they saw on 60 Minutes.  But how does that get them to the conclusion that I am a “liar,” the “biggest dirty trickster since Watergate,” and “a paid agent of George Soros.”

My emailers apparently think the folks at “60 Minutes” were sloppy in checking the facts about the president’s service in the National Guard.  Where do they get their facts?  How can they be utterly oblivious to their own inability to discover the simplest facts about me?

As far as I am concerned this will all be over soon.  My email enemies will get tired of harassing someone who might be (but is not) a secondary witness in a minor campaign story.

But in the last week I have learned a bit about what it must be like to be John Kerry or George Bush. They are the victims of a constant stream of appalling accusations that are false and far worse than the ones being aimed at me.

Politics has always been a rough sport.  But this season seems rougher than usual.  Is that because the last election was so close that the stakes are higher this time around?  Have we become so polarized and partisan that no one any longer cares about the truthfulness of what is said in a political campaign?  Could it be that dirty tricks that used to involve whispered rumors are now done more openly and more nationally on the web and in television advertising bought with unregulated money?

Or is it something about the internet?  It used to be that only leaders could be demagogues.  They were the only ones with access to mass communication that allowed them to manipulate popular prejudices in pursuit of power.  Now fast computers and a world wide web have democratized demagogy.  Today anyone can sit at their terminal spew hatred, issue false accusations and become a virtual Senator McCarthy.  On both sides of the political spectrum that is exactly what some people are doing.

Last week they found my email address.


A version of this essay was published in the Miami Herald, September 16, 2004



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