Mudslinging in presidential elections is as old as the American political system. The Internet has increased both the rate as well as the quantity of attack strains. The low cost and accessibility of Internet technology has placed the power to disrupt a presidential campaign in the hands of the average American. Someone with far more technical abilities can wreak far more damage.
It doesn't take a computer hacker to create, distribute, and comment on disinformation. Technologies like YouTube has made gaffs and inappropriateness permanent and viral. For example, anyone interested in our potential executive officer's previous and current religious leadership can watch 30 second clips Obama's ex-pastor or Palin's current church ad nauseum.
Combatting Internet-spread disinformation is challenging as well. While the swift-boat crew of 2004 can easily be tracked down, this is not true of disinformation efforts spread on the Internet, such as the "Obama is a Muslum"" meme. It took a researcher at Princeton's IAS to track down the root of the e-mail.
Technologically advanced political operatives can do far more damage. While Internet fundraising has been critical to the financial solvency of both campaigns, Barack Obama has raised volumes of cash via the web. Earlier this year, Oliver Friedrichs and his team looked in depth at the impact of phishing on presidential candidate's websites. If variations on BarackObama.com were registered by someone with malicious intent, such as a gray-zone 503c group, and subsequently used as a phishing target, it could have cut into both the credibility of the fundraising route as well as the available pool of capital.
The attack on Sarah Palin's e-mail was not simply a major data leakage event. Even without the opposition finding anything damaging that could be used in the campaign, McCain's people were forced into sinking precious time and energy into analysis and countermeasures surrounding the event. Secondary effects from such distractions must also be considered in the impact calculus, such as the temporary loss of control of McCain's media mindshare during the event.
I don't want to speculate what the rest of this campaign will bring, nor what we will see in future elections. Our increasing reliance upon this medium means whatever we see will be interesting.