Why Googling a Democrat Could Lead You to Pizza Hut—Or Hamas

A new slate of domain names has opened up more avenues for mischief on the campaign trail.

A combination Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. (National Journal)

Given that she's trying to win a Georgia Senate seat, Democrat Michelle Nunn is unlikely to be pushing propaganda on behalf of a Middle Eastern militant group, but if Georgia voters head to www.nunn.democrat, propaganda is exactly what they'll get.

That's because the Web address isn't run by the Nunn campaign at all. Instead, it's the creation of someone working to undermine her campaign by tying her to the Palestinian group Hamas. And so, a visitor to www.nunn.democrat will be automatically redirected to the Twitter account for al-Qassam Brigades, which espouses pro-Hamas and anti-Israel talking points.

It's a trick that could soon become commonplace in politics. With domains such as ".democrat" and ".republican" now available, it is now easier to misdirect voters with dummy websites—ones that are designed (or addressed) to appear part of a candidate's campaign, but are actually set up by outside actors looking to take that candidate down. The idea of the sites is to confuse voters into believing they're reading exactly what a candidate has to say about herself, and then to lay out the last things the candidate would ever want voters to read.

In Nunn's case, the Web address is aimed at reinforcing a Republican accusation that the Democrat helped fund the militant Islamic group through a nonprofit organization she once ran. But Nunn isn't the only Georgia Democrat facing a dummy site.

Jason Carter, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate running against Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, has www.jasoncarter.democrat, which purports to provide "liberals across Georgia an insider view of our campaign strategy and the real facts about Jason Carter to win over undecided voters."

The site is unaffiliated with Carter's campaign, but everything about it is designed to convince the reader otherwise. The "Campaign Insider Action Center" repeatedly refers to Carter as a "liberal Democrat"—not a winning line in Georgia—and proclaims his platform to be: "Expanding Obamacare. Higher Taxes on Businesses to Pay for More Education Spending." The kicker is a "Yes We Can!" from President Obama.

The site also includes contact information for "Jason Carter Democrat for Governor," but it doesn't bring visitors much closer to the Carter campaign—or to the person behind the Web address. The phone number provided connects callers to an Atlanta Pizza Hut, while an email to jasoncarterforgovernor@gmail.com went unreturned. The address listed is a P.O. box at a local post office.

New top-level domain names became available after more and more Web addresses were getting snatched up—like adding a new area code when an area runs low on available phone numbers. Domains ending in .democrat were first up for grabs in May, when the Georgia-focused sites were created.

Regardless of intent, they're a largely consequence-free way to tar candidates. It's difficult enough to figure out who sets up these websites that few are likely to do so. In the case of the dummy Georgia sites, whoever bought the domain names purchased them through GoDaddy.com, according to this tool that tracks domain ownership. That means the creator's identity is private.

Other fake sites, however, are run by larger entities who are more open about their intentions: The National Republican Congressional Committee unveiled a series of websites in August that look like local news outlets, but contain information that cast Democratic House candidates in an unfavorable light. In 2013, the NRCC even created fake candidate websites to go after Democrats, a push it came under fire for. But those sites didn't use a ".democrat" domain name. Adding those to the mix provides a whole new avenue for mischief on the campaign trail.

The dummy sites are becoming enough of a concern that some campaigns are working to preemptively block them. One Republican strategist in Georgia, Joel McElhannon, said he has already bought up domain names like these for some of his clients to prevent future headaches.

"Major tech companies like Google and Amazon are spending millions on these new domains because they will revolutionize how the Internet and search works," McElhannon said. "The impact in the political arena—how voters find candidates and how campaigns and super PACs spread information—will be huge. My advice to my clients is to, at a minimum, own their name to protect their own personal brand in the future."

Republicans have heeded that advice. When ".gop" became available, the party secured control of the entire domain.