Unethical Website Of The Month: JoeBiden.info, But Not For The Reasons Cited By The New York Times

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.

34 thoughts on “Unethical Website Of The Month: JoeBiden.info, But Not For The Reasons Cited By The New York Times

  1. Biden dot info and the bottom of the first page says it is a parody site?

    And, no misinformation on the site?

    I would rule it ethical (or, at least, not deceptive).

    Your position seems to be that any neutral domain name should be reserved for the subject of the domain name. It would be okay for a parody site to identify itself in its name (bidenisajerk.com), but I suppose you would also deem it unethical for this site to be named bidenisgreat.com, even if by great, the first page said “great big jerk”).

    It appears that the sole basis for it being unethical is that the name of the site is not sufficiently descriptive to indicate it is a parody, even though, if you click on it: 1) the information there is accurate; and 2) the first page informs you of the purpose of the site.

    I don’t know: I bet this would make a good ethics quiz; I think this is a closer call than you imply.

    -Jut

    • 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.

      I tend to agree with Jut that the purpose of the site is self-explanatory.

      If this parody were squatting on “JoeBiden.com”, I’d 100% agree that it was unethically deceptive. I tend however to not trust any website that strays from “.com”, “.net”, or “.org”. Buyer beware with “.info”, “.tv”, “.co”, etc. Using these domains at the sketchier end of the spectrum would seem to imply it were very not official.

      However, the whole internet seems to be broken on this front, and applying a consistent rule is impossible. For instance “TheRealJoeBiden.com” could easily be next months unethical site of the month. Case in point: the President’s twitter handle is @RealDonaldTrump.

      Does “real” imply official, or critical?

      I think the website truthfully lives up to its stated purpose; JoeBiden.info provides truthful information about Joe Biden. Given the utter inconsistency in web address etiquette, this appears to be as good faith an effort as is possible.

      • This may be a difference of opinion between people who understand how top-level-domains work and how domain names are sold and those who don’t. I wouldn’t bat an eye at a .info site being parody. A .com or .net? Yes. A .org? I guess I am a purist and think that .org should be reserved for ONLY nonprofits. Jon Postel would not have objected to even a .com or .net. If Biden screamed copyright, Postel would have told him the domain had been sold and was being used. You snooze, you loose. Remember what happened with coke.com.

  2. So which is the unethical website Joebideninfo.com or the New York Times website?

    I don’t see much difference between a site called the RealJoeBiden.com or JoeBideninfo.com.

    Does it make a difference if a reputable newspaper that endorses a particular candidate and then creates a series of historical truths about the opposing candidate and publishes them in an editorial ? I don’t think so.

    Short of putting Biden employing his best groping skills on the landing page how would someone create a page that is tasteful and informative without creating in some the belief that this is a pro Biden site.

    It is quite possible that the Biden campaign did register many URL’s but missed this one. A URL listing The Real JoeBiden.com, info, biz and org would be the first URL’s that would be registered by the official campaign before JoeBideninfo.com.

    I agree that using a person’s name in a URL seems unethical but I am reminded that SONY Corp sued a woman business owner in NewYork because she used her name in her small electronics retail store. Her first name was Sony a her store was called Sony’s electronics. Biden should have plenty of resources to compete against this challenge. If he cannot then he does not deserve to be a candidate.

    • I should have added that Sony Corp’s claim was that the little retailer was creating confusion in the market.

      Pure BS. No one would be confused unless they were complete morons.

  3. digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit.

    what is, in essence, a disinformation operation run by one of its own.”

    I think what Rosenberg is trying to tell us is that’s his job.

  4. Jack, I’d offer an additional thought. The fact that the Biden campaign didn’t protect the major domain possibilities attached to his name is res ipsa loquitur proof of the campaign’s – and, by extension, the candidates’s – incompetence.

    This kind of stuff has been happening pretty much since the late ’90s, at a time when the Web was discovered by people who figured out you could actually make a buck on it and it emerged from the land of dreamy-eyed egalitarians who photosynthesized unicorn farts. Snapping up URLs of potential value was one of the first web shakedown techniques.

    We’re now a generation past that point in time – and Biden’s team is so fucking stupid they didn’t know this and secure the URL years ago?

    Hey, it’s Joe. Suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.

    And look for a backchannel email from me.

    • AiM is absolutely correct. The term them was cybersquatting. Coca Cola if I recall correctly had to pay a mint to a cybersquatter.

    • For all we know, they have been cyber-squatting that site for 20 years, or whenever the .info suffix was implemented.
      -Jut

      • This is information that can be found with a domain ‘whois’ tool lookup. In this case, first registered May 2015. Some of these lookup tools build around them marketplaces to buy and sell domains, and the one I used claims this domain is listed for sale at a cool $750,000. (I can’t vouch for this… Some of these tools are also known to disguise ‘appraisal’ services sticking a price on something not really available to create the appearance of an inventory to attract speculators.)

    • Arthur,

      I agree. The campaign didn’t protect Biden’s web presence? That is incompetence at the highest level.

      I know a lawyer who routinely registers domain names and gets paid handsomely from the purchasers. If an experienced politician and staff can’t figure our how to protect the candidate, then they are not ready for the big leagues.

      jvb

      • In contrast, here are the domain names Michael Bloomberg paid to reserve to protect himself just in case he did run for President…the numbers are off, but you can figure it out..

        Bloomberg .NYC Domain Names

        1
        Visit http://www.DNW.com
        2
        aboutbloomberg.nyc.
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        350
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  5. Progressive authoritarians control nearly all of the most massive media platforms of all types. They have a virtual lock on widely disseminated information. In other words, they don’t have to live in an information bubble; the’ve made the bubble so big we’re ALL in it.

    What they’re doing now is hunting down the more popular outliers- the dissident bloggers, social media users, and websites that attract large numbers. It’s not so hard to do anymore because there are so few, and they stand out. There are no corporate-backed right-wing talk show hosts on TV, so web personalities like Crowder gain a huge following. Then the left-wing political/corporate conglomerate swats them down, any way they can. If they can’t ban, bankrupt, or silence them, they’ll just leverage their collective platforms into a campaign to discredit and dismiss them.

  6. I’m not sure this website is unethical, even in name. It’s a website that contains info about Joe Biden. The main page states that it is not pro Biden. Nothing said on the website is unture. The entire website is about Joe Biden. There are no attempts to mislead anybody, as far as I can tell. Since nothing about the website is inaccurate, nor is anything on the website made to indicate that it was made by anyone on Biden’s team, nor support Biden in any way, I can’t see anything unethical about it.

    • I was clear about what’s unethical about it: it deliberately tries to trick people into going there, thinking it is a pro-Biden website. I was clera about the rest, too: the content isn’t unethical.

      Some times I wonder if commenters read the post. Like now.

      • When I saw the picture, before I read your commentary, I thought it was joes official campaign site.

      • Yes, you were clear about what you found unethical. The issue is using the subject’s name in tbe URL which does not overtly describe the content of the site which is not flattering.

        I do not think the motivation was to decieve someone into believing this was a pro Biden site. The motivation is to get eyeballs and clicks from anywhere.

        Does it matter if the title of a less than flattering biography such as JFK use the image and name of the subject on the cover art not fully disclose that the text inside is not pro subject?

        I believe that is why many of us seem less willing to condemn it as unethical when it is easy enough once on the site to determine its purpose.

        I do believe that buying up persons names for the express purpose of selling them back at a premium is dead wrong. That is not what happened here.

        • Is there any doubt that anyone who clicks on a website link with a Presidential candidate’s name on it assumes that 1) the candidate has something to do with the site and 2) that it isn’t a negative site about the individual? That’s threshold deception. JFK’s dead—that’s materially different. Since he’s dead, we know he has nothing to do with a website.

          If selling something you have appropriated from the person who would be the assumed stake-holder in it is a marker of unethical conduct, so too is taking it at all, whether the motive is profit or to harm the individual. It’s a straight-forward Golden Rule breach: would you want to see someone using your name in a url to mock you?

          • Jack,
            I acknowledge my use of JFK was a poor choice because he is dead. But, what if I posted a URL that was http://www.insidegoogle.com? Does that name sound as if it is sponsored by Google. Some may say yes, some may say no. JoeBiden.info does not suggest to me that it is an official site. In fact, to me it suggests the opposite. It is sterile without a message. the .info tells me that the .com and .org sites were taken by the official campaign so this is not it. Besides, why should I care about getting info on Joe Biden? Marketers know that words matter: Bidenforpresident.com or Biden2020.org might make believe it is an official site.

            As for the golden rule: I would not want my persona parodied at all anywhere or anytime. With that said, if I make myself a public figure as is Joe Biden then I should expect that detractors will exploit my name for gain anyway they can. When politicians start living by the golden rule during campaigns, pigs will be soaring above us all.

            This guy made some T shirts he wants to sell just like the people that sell the anti-Trump wares on Café Press. He just cut out the middle man.

            Let me say I do appreciate where you are coming from but I am thinking that you are not giving enough credit to the universe of people that come across JoeBiden.info URL to really discern the motivation and purpose of the site immediately upon landing on the page if not from the URL itself.

            • JoeBiden.info does not even appear on the first Google search results page but the official fundraising site called goJoebiden.com is the first heading. The official joebiden.com site is the third entry and just behind the Wikipedia data.

              Using Bing and only Joe Biden in the search criteria

              First entry
              Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website
              https://joebiden.com

              We are the United States of America. There is not a single thing we cannot do. Are you with us? Join our campaign to elect Joe Biden today!

              Joebiden.info is on the first page but below the URL claiming to be the official site.

              To get to Joebiden.info you must either type it in directly or ignore the entry claiming to be the Official Campaign website

      • The website is information about Joe Biden. It is called joebiden.info. It’s not uncommon to use the entire web address to describe the site. It could be read as Joe Biden info. There is nothing misleading about a site that has information about someone with a web address with the person’s name followed by info. I know you said that the web address itself was your only issue with it, and that is the issue on which I disagree. Nothing in the web address is unrelated to the person it’s about. If the site itself claimed to be supported by Joe Biden, I could accept the web address also being unethical. If it was registered for the purpose of selling it to Joe Biden at high cost, I would accept the web address being unethical. But the way it is used in conjunction with the rest of the site does not make this web address alone unethical.

        • I think that’s a stretch. Would you feel that way about Andrew Nelson.com? Would your friends and admirers assume that such a site had your participation or at very least approval? Sure they would, and in the case of the Biden parody site, the creator also assumes his site’s name will have the same effect—a misleading and deceptive one.

          • Perhaps, if the website was .com, but it is not. It is .info. This gives a different meaning to the website. Just as .gov denotes a government run site, .info denotes information about the subject. The creator of the site chose .info specifically. That is enough to cast doubt on the statement that the site’s owner intended the name to mislead people into thinking that his site would be pro Biden.

            • You’re assuming more knowledge of domain name inside baseball than most members of the public have, though. What about the .nyc suffix that Bloomberg reserved? I pay no attention to the suffix at all.

              • The public may not really know too much about domain names, but what about the man who created the site? If his understanding of domain names led him to use the .info as an indicator to inform only, and not mislead, then that would make his choice of domain name not unethical.

  7. How far does the New York Times have to go to run afoul of campaign finance laws?

    Seriously, it is one thing to favor one candidate over the other. It is another altogether to create political attack ads in the guise of “news.” It is nothing but propaganda.

    This is fake news. It is false, intended to deceive, and duplicitous. It could’ve been written by Russia Today.

  8. I think there’s possibly another take on this that you didn’t consider.

    A few days ago we had this post whose first half was all about Google being caught on tape admitting that they considered it not only right and proper, but their DUTY to use their algorithms to shape public perception to be favorable to Democrat candidates in the upcoming election.

    Faced with a global giant of a search engine that is openly hostile to your point-of-view, is it possibly a reasonable first step towards protecting yourself from said company to use a simple, neutral-sounding domain name rather than one that is openly critical?

    I’m not saying that this necessarily changes your analysis and–frankly–it’s getting into “two wrongs make a right” territory.

    But in 2020 and the years beyond, this may be a necessary step in order to get an opposing viewpoint out there without it getting buried.

    –Dwayne

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