How political operatives dig up dirt to take down candidates

Social media sleuthing has become a critical weapon in election campaigns, with partisans trolling for past indiscretions to discredit candidates.

War room operatives, tech-savvy bloggers time release to maximize damage

Hyper-partisans and tech-savvy bloggers scour social media sites to tap material that could damage political candidates. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

​They're tech-savvy bloggers, hyper-partisan war room operatives, and possibly, hired guns — all on a mission to dig up dirt and take down candidates.

Social media sleuths are having a major effect on each party's campaign.

Dredging up damaging material to discredit candidates has long been part of election campaigns, but lately the ammunition is being found on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

"The partisan motivation is clear, and that's a body count," says one veteran political war room operative.

Embarrass leader, taint party brand

There is intense pressure to unearth material and time its release to maximize the damage. The goal is not just to hurt the individual candidate, but to embarrass the party leader and taint the party brand — and there are incentives for delivering the goods.

Sophisticated software programs that can retrieve archived and cached material have replaced the old-school visits to court and registry clerks.

"The real dark arts of this used to be the guys who would go down to the court house and hunt down records," the insider said. "Now you sit with a computer and with a few clicks you can get all this information. But it's expensive software, so you have to have someone bankrolling it."

Programs allow users to scrape and search data, zeroing in on swear words or controversial issues. While anything is fair game, the search usually goes to character, judgment or ethics, and helping with that cause is a rising tide of non-partisan "vigilantes" who research and report on social media and blogs.

Robert Jago voted Conservative in the last three elections, but now the disaffected Montreal-based blogger is dedicated to outing past indiscretions of Tory candidates.

So far, his research has taken down two of them — and he's not through yet.

All three main parties have been tripped up in candidate controversies in recent weeks, and the list of social media slip-ups continues to grow. 

First Nations, gay rights on radar

Jago said his goal is not to humiliate individuals, but to bar from elected office those who disparage First Nations, gay rights or women. He's trying to highlight how the Conservative Party has swung to the right and replaced quality candidates with "shallow hyper-partisans."

"It's not the elements of each individual case, but part of a broader picture I'm trying to paint," he said.

Jago accused the parties of doing a "pathetic" job of vetting, and says the information he unearthed required little sophistication and not much time.

Citizen blogger Robert Jago scours social media sites to unearth past indiscretions from political candidates. (Robert Jago/Twitter)

But deep searches can be time-consuming tasks even for the most seasoned private investigators.

Themi Gitersos of Ottawa-based private investigations firm Elemental PI, who sharpened his skills as an infantry soldier and military investigator, said it's "highly likely" that political parties use the services of hired firms. But he said any work would be commissioned by proxy through a third party to provide deniability.

While investigators aren't above picking through garbage to glean financial data and other information, digging up dirt on a candidate begins with a basic Google search, Gitersos said.

Deep searches

That moves to a deeper search by matching information like cell numbers, home town, schools and user names. There are email tracers, advanced search engine methods, social media digging and data checks from hacked sites like Ashley Madison.

The researcher can then start piecing together a picture by matching data with hidden accounts, log-in credentials and language analysis.

"It's a matter of filtering and refiltering information," he said. "Eventually you find out if they're clean or the damaging stuff starts coming out."

But with each party trying to vet hundreds of candidates (their own and their opponents,) the biggest asset is a base of grassroots supporters. Enlisting foot soldiers in a local riding spreads the work, and keeps an ear on the ground for tips and rumours to pursue.

"It is essentially crowdsourcing the dirt and the spinners, weed out the crazy and keep the good stuff. They will also send people into the community under guise and interview people, knowingly or under pretext, to gather info they can use," he said.

Ottawa private investigator Alex Hunt said the massive wealth of material on the web makes it easier for party faithful to hit "pay dirt" with an investment of time to do the footwork.

"I don't want to call them trolls, but they're troll-like people who will search the internet. They do it for free because they're loyal to the party," he said.

The close three-way race in this campaign drives the stakes even higher.

"The things they did when they were a janitor, nobody cared about. But now they're representing a political party, every little thing becomes something." he said.


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