Blumenthal ‘bot’ attack reveals web’s toxic side
It’s the potential dark side of this period in public life, when entertainers and politicians are targets of sexual harassment claims by men and women who sense a new freedom in publicly airing their sometimes decades-old claims.
An apparent hoaxer who targeted U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Friday underscores the potential for anonymous political enemies to hide behind shifting, even-disappearing social media platforms.
Blumenthal on Saturday night dismissed the attack and stressed that false claims like this can take away from the legitimate harassment reports that many are now feeling strong enough to pursue.
“Everything about this attack was phony and false,” said Blumenthal, a Democrat, in a phone interview discussing the internet troll. “The twitter account was phony. The claims are a lie. Everything about this attack was false from beginning to end. This kind of phony hoax is a disservice and tremendously detrimental to the courageous and brave people coming forward.”
Blumenthal’s personal response came a day after Hearst Connecticut Media’s report of an apparent internet troll involving a woman who says she was harassed and assaulted while a teenaged intern when he was U.S. attorney in 1979.
Some experts see these attacks as harbingers of a new era in “fake” news media.
“If they don’t identify themselves that should put a cloud over it,” said Gary L. Rose, professor and chairman of the Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “In the case of false claims, they better have their attorneys. They should be sued.”
Rose said in a Saturday interview that false allegations are an almost inevitable, treacherous side effect of the revelations of high-powered movie producers like Harvey Weinstein, actors like Kevin Spacey, and politicians including Sen. Al Franken and President Donald Trump sexually harassing and touching men and women.
“I think that a lot of high-profile people, actors, comedians, senators, with the proliferation of allegations going on, and other social media, it was just a matter of time before frivolous claims came up,” said Rose. “Even people like Dick Blumenthal have to be on-guard. Some people have a perverse intent. We have to be on the lookout for a rash of these.”
On Friday, a person identifying herself as “Linda Flores” of Cheshire, charged that Blumenthal insulted, harassed and sexually assaulted her during that summer of 1979. He served as U.S. attorney from 1977 until 1981, before winning election to the state Senate, then state longtime attorney general, before winning the U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
Someone identifying herself as Flores, in an email, declined to be interviewed. Throughout the day, her Twitter account changed and was eventually suspended. Her profile photos on social media also changed.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton of Milford, who is the president of the Connecticut chapter of National Organization for Women said Saturday that there will always be people who are going to “cry wolf” and make unwarranted attacks.
“I would hope that what appears to be a false claim doesn’t inhibit other women who have suffered any sort of sexual harassment or sexual assault from coming forward,” Boynton said in a phone interview. “It’s like women have - all of a sudden - been given permission to come forward and say what happened to them. There’s a strength in numbers. I think what’s happening right now is really important, extremely empowering,” she added.
Rose, the SHU political scientist, warned of the possibility of “a rash” of copycat attacks on public figures and others from Internet hoaxers using web robots, called “bots,” which are software that can perform work at high speed with near-anonymity.
Flores initially sent an email, full of misspellings and poor grammar, to the New Haven Register, part of Hearst Connecticut Media, saying she grew up in Cheshire and that her father helped get her an unpaid internship in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Haven.