We haven’t had an Unethical Website Of The Month here since 2018! Once upon a time, I had at least one desiganted every month, over at the currently-down-but -will-get-back-on-line-as-soon-as-I fight-with-the-cheap-hosts Ethics Scoreboard. This is an area where reader tips would help a great deal.
The home page you see above is that of Joe Biden.info, the most trafficked Biden website on the web. Despite the glowing text and cheery photo, however, it is not a pro-Biden project, but a Biden attack site, concocted by Patrick Mauldin, a Republican political consultant and who makes videos and other digital content for President Trump’s re-election campaign. With his brother Ryan, Mauldin, he runs the Vici Media Group, a conservative consulting firm in Austin, Texas. (Mauldin has also set up parody campaign websites for at least three other Democratic candidates: “Millionaire Bernie,” “Elizabeth Warren for Chief,”and “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People.” These, however are different in kind, for nobody except an idiot would confuse them with actual campaign sites.)
Now, I read through the site, and you may well ask, “What’s unethical about it?” The answer is very basic: taking a domain name designed to fool people into thinking the site is something it is not is unethical, that’s all. It is also unethical—though legal—to take another individual’s or organization’s name to make a deceptive URL. In my view, this should be illegal, or treated like a copyright infringement: Joe should be able to send a letter demanding that website using his name in a deceptive fashion be taken down.
Under current law however, the site is legal though unethical. It is more transparent, in fact, than most parody sites. At the bottom of the first screen, and not buried deep in the site, we can see,
This site is political commentary and parody of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign website. This is not Joe Biden’s actual website.
It is intended for entertainment and political commentary only and is therefore protected under fair use. It is not paid for by any candidate, committee, organization, or PAC. It is a project BY AN American citizen FOR American citizens. Self-Funded.
As for the content itself, it appears to me to be accurate and fair, if calculated to turn off potential Democratic supporters. It highlights Joe’s hypocrisy regarding sexual harassment and respect for women with an exhaustive collection of photos of Biden touching girls, teens and women without their consent—I may even use some of them. The site also accurately highlights the past policy positions Biden is currently running away from. I don’t see any misinformation there.
Yet here is how the New York Times characterizes the site:
“Mr. Mauldin’s website hews far closer to the disinformation spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging. With nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer, the website offers a preview of what election experts and national security officials say Americans can expect to be bombarded with for the next year and a half: anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit. Trolling, that is, as a political strategy. Mr. Mauldin, who has not been previously identified as the creator of the website, said he had built and paid for it on his own, and not for the Trump campaign. But the campaign knows about the websites, raising the prospect that the president’s re-election effort condoned what is, in essence, a disinformation operation run by one of its own.”
I count four or five lies in this account, which is four or five more than the number of lies in Joe-Biden.info. This is nothing like the Russian disinformation junk: it’s all true. “Nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer”—Huh? The site is res ipsa loquitur: the creator doesn’t want to see Biden elected President. The creator’s employer is irrelevant, since it is self-funded. Does the Times doubt that? Then they should prove it. This is false innuendo.
“Anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging”? How does the Times justify a lie like that? The name of the creator is on the site, and it is no more hard to trace than Ethics Alarms. “Sow discord through deceit”? What deceit? The Times’ reporter, Matthew Rosenberg, has just outed himself as campaign operative posing as a journalist. He’s just using his role to mouth Biden campaign denials. The campaign calls the site “full of obvious disinformation.” Interestingly, neither Biden’s mouthpieces nor the Times reporter says what those are. Are those photos fake? Joe didn’t vote for the Iraq War? He wasn’t against gay marriage? He didn’t call Barack Obama a “clean” African American? That’s weird, because I am old enough to remember Joe doing or saying all of those things, as well as the others highlighted on the site.
The Times piece uses deceitful language to imply Trump campaign complicity in the site without any evidence at all. Oooooh, the Trump campaign knows about the site! So what? How does that “raise the prospect” that the campaign condoned it, and what if it did? I don’t condone the misleading URL, but if the site was called, say, “The Real Joe Biden.com,” or “Joe Biden is a hypocritical fool.com.” I’d give it my ethics blessing. This isn’t an unethical campaign tactic.
The New York Times is more dishonest in this single piece, and in virtually every edition, in its effort to push disinformation into the 2020 campaign than the entire contents of the parody website. Yes, the site is unethical. The Times commentary about it, however, is beyond unethical, reaching all the way to deliberately deceptive, and unforgivable.