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The case of the racist attack ad

Days before the Republican New Hampshire primary, a bizarre video appeared on YouTube attacking candidate Jon Huntsman, the former Chinese ambassador. The result is an intriguing whodunit involving social media forensics and conspiracy theories.

The video suggests Huntsman is somehow a traitor (a “Manchurian Candidate”) because he speaks Mandarin and has an adopted Indian daughter. Video clips show Paul speaking Mandarin (which was part of his job as the Chinese ambassador). A photo of Huntsman and his daughter, each wearing a bindi, is followed by a slide saying “Even adopted?” Watch the appalling thing here:

Clearly the ad is low-blow, sleaze-ball stuff. Yet it has layers like an onion. Let’s acknowledge, first off, the wrongness of racism, suggesting treason and infidelity without proof, and the insane idea that service abroad disqualifies someone from being president. Beyond that, what’s really going on here? Who’s attacking whom?

An unidentified person uploaded the video to YouTube under the handle “NHLiberty4Paul.” This suggests a connection to Ron Paul. Which meant that in the first round of media coverage about the video late last week, the Paul campaign was forced to respond. The campaign denied any connection to the video; a Paul spokesperson told the Associated Press, “The video was utterly distasteful and no one who actually supports Dr. Paul’s principles would have made it.”

Then the second phase of media coverage started. The Paul campaign commissioned a consulting firm called CanDo.com to try to find out where it actually came from. CanDo concluded, “it is likely that the video came from a source within or closely tied to the Huntsman campaign.”

(You can read the report here, via Politico.)

Interesting play! Armed with social media forensics, the Paul team floats the theory that the Huntsman campaign created an appalling ad attacking Huntsman, then used it to smear Paul. The Paul campaign gets to disavow the video and still get some mileage out of it.

Is it a plausible theory? Sure. Few people are scared enough of Jon Huntsman to sink this low, but plenty of people are concerned about Ron Paul winning New Hampshire on Tuesday. If people think a Paul supporter made this ad, it hurts Paul more than Huntsman. Paul is also the candidate most closely associated with the batshit racist conservatives who scare voters away. No matter how much Paul distances himself from this underground fringe of the party, it’s a huge branding problem he yet to overcome. Paul is still fielding questions about his racist newsletters of the 1990s.

Now, does the CanDo report make any sense? CanDo surmises that the because some of the first recorded views of the video on YouTube were referrals from Huntsman’s domain name (Jon2012.com), they were likely viewed by campaign staff using Huntman’s email system. If campaign saw it first, before anyone else, they or someone close to them must have created it.

The logic is sound, but it’s hardly proof that a Hunstman supporter produced the video.

There’s another explanation offered by the Huntsman camp: A link to the video might have first surfaced in a part of the Huntsman website that aggregates Tweets about Huntsman. People followed the Twitter link from there, and YouTube recorded the clicks as coming from Jon2012.com.

It’s also possible an enemy of Huntsman’s could have made the video and emailed it to some staffers first, as a taunt, before distributing it widely.

Or, armed with the knowledge of how people use YouTube for statistics, the video creator (still a Huntsman enemy) could have been trying to discredit the Huntsman campaign by making it look like they were playing a dirty trick against Paul—by making it look like Paul was playing a dirty trick on them. A level-three dirty trick! Now we’re getting into “Inception” territory.

At any rate, Huntsman ended up on the defensive, with a spokesperson telling Politico, “It is offensive that Ron Paul’s allies would claim that Gov. Huntsman’s own family would create such a video that distracts from the important issues that this country faces.”

Follow all that? No one wants anything to do with this video, unless they can blame it on the other guy.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising, Politics

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