February 19, 2016

It’s no accident that Frank Underwood, the scheming, silky-voiced political operator from “House of Cards,” hails from South Carolina.

In an election year that’s already taken incendiary rhetoric to a new level, the Palmetto state’s noxious primary has featured bombast from candidates on both sides. And if the mud-slinging reaches new lows, the state’s largest newspaper will be well-positioned to tell the story.

Two weeks ago, The South Carolina Post and Courier turned its readership into a network of political informants by unveiling a Web app called Whisper Campaign. At its core, Whisper Campaign is an anonymous tip line, a no-questions-asked forum that allows readers to call out examples of unscrupulous campaign tactics — push polling, slanderous robo calls, nasty mailers and defaced political signs.

Using the forum — which has received 36 reports since its debut — readers have called out impolitic smears against candidates on both sides of the aisle, often using varying degrees of colorful language.

“Trump Signs are being stolen, They keep the frames and use them for JEB BUSH,” one report read. “When we catch them some FINGERS will be BROKEN!”

The Post and Courier replied sensibly.

“Please don’t resort to violence.”

Whisper Campaign is the creation of Emory Parker, the interactive editor at the Post and Courier, and Schuyler Kropf, the Post and Courier’s political editor. When Parker conceived the idea and brought it to Kropf, the political editor immediately saw an opportunity to lay bare dirty tricks that have been deployed in South Carolina in the past. He recalled the particularly vile South Carolina primary race between John McCain and George W. Bush in 2000, when McCain accused Bush of circulating defamatory mailers on the debate stage.

“All of a sudden, it took this presidential race into a race for dogcatcher,” Kropf said. “It demeaned the stature of the race by taking an outside piece of paper that someone had run off on a Xerox machine and planted on cars in the parking lot. All of a sudden, someone was influencing the valuable TV time of the debate.”

So, Parker and Kropf asked themselves how they could best let the public be their eyes and ears in the runup to the primary. They wanted to allow readers to submit reports of questionable phone calls, suspect campaign mailers and any other objectionable material they might find.

So, they put a callout on the front page of the print version of the newspaper, and highlighted the app in the Post and Courier’s Palmetto Politics section. On Wednesday, Kropf wrote a story detailing some of the worst mud-slinging collected through Whisper Campaign, adding the caveat that the reports don’t seem to indicate a concerted takedown effort from any one campaign.

While there is no early evidence of mass conspiracies by one candidate against another in the reports, media experts who follow political advertising and other forms of mass communication say the common denominator running through many of these sorts of political contacts, when delivered with a negative slant, is voter suppression.

This isn’t the first time a news organization has used an app to solicit anonymous feedback. Recently, the BBC has been experimenting with the anonymous social app Yik Yak to supplement its week of mental health coverage. Whisper, another anonymous social app, allowed news organizations including BuzzFeed to find content for their stories before a flawed exposé from Guardian U.S. raised privacy concerns about the app.

Kropf says he’s slightly disappointed by the small volume of reports garnered by Whisper Campaign, but The Post and Courier intends to keep the app running through the primary on Saturday and through the Democratic primary in South Carolina Feb. 27. They will likely repeat the same tactic for other political contests, such as the next governor’s race.

By establishing itself as a trusted source for political chatter, the Post and Courier hopes to eventually unearth tips that lead to substantial stories.

“Your first story always gets you your second one,” Kropf said. “So that’s what we hope will happen.”

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

More News

Back to News