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‘Gotcha’ videos gone wild

A new wave of opposition researchers is harnessing the power of the web to upend campaigns and reshape the political conversation this election season.

To date, Kaczynski has been called a one-man wrecking crew, the Oppenheimer of political videos, and Romney’s worst nightmare.

As for party affiliation or loyalty, Kaczynski describes himself as a moderate who has interned for Republicans in the past, but now works outside any partisan agenda. Rather, his priority is to find newsworthy gaffes and inconsistencies that will trend on the web. And his work has been so effective – and, some would say, damaging — that he was hired on at the beginning of the year to work for the popular news aggregator BuzzFeed as a fulltime political researcher and reporter.

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“Andrew is the best example of some random guy who finds those best hits that are just dangling out there and no one’s looking for it,” said Morgen Richmond, a 40-year-old hobbyist oppo researcher from Orange County, Calif. A married father of two and the owner of a computer consultancy with 75 employees, Richmond also runs the conservative blog Verum Serum in his spare time.

Richmond cut his teeth during the 2009 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He is credited for finding the “wise Latina” speech that conservatives subsequently used to paint Sotomayor as an activist judge.

“Being a right-wing conservative, I certainly focus on opposing policies from the left,” said Richmond. “For me it’s about affecting the public politics and decision making.”

Asked about the rise of the amateur video miner, Richmond says that he believes this trend reflects the larger shifts and fragmentation in the media landscape.

“It’s your average person, a graduate student, … a middle aged guy, … an angry voter. People who are doing this who are amateurs are really taking the political debate by the reigns,” said Kaczynski. “It really takes away the campaign’s control over the message.”

While Carter, Kaczynski and Richmond all come from different political perspectives, these web-savvy researchers all agree that this it’s the thrill of the hunt that gets them out of bed in the morning.

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Some seasoned political hands remain skeptical of this growing band of civilian operatives despite their growing influence in the campaign cycle. Traditional opposition researchers like Michael Rejebian, who was an investigative journalist in a previous life, point out that there’s an inherent danger in using short sound bites that only tell a part of a candidate’s story.

“The full context is not there and all of a sudden people like Andrew become a judge of the message and the message should be the entire speech and not just a clip. Unless you’re going to say, ‘Here is the entire 20 minute hearing on C-SPAN,’ there is an inherent danger,” said Rejebian, also the co-author of a new book “We’re With Nobody,” which details his experiences as an opposition researcher.

Still, others wonder if and when the preponderance of damning data will collapse upon itself. Looking at the exponential proliferation of digital recording devices and social networking websites — and by extension, the ever-expanding digital footprint for all public figures — some media watchers liken this new wave of opposition research to shooting fish in a barrel. Veteran media critic Jack Shafer goes one step further when he speculates that it’s only a matter of time before the “complete documentation on every politician of note, produced on the web in Wikipedia fashion, would make opposition research redundant.”

But until we reach that dystopian state of total media saturation and surveillance, it’s clear that prodigious researchers like Carter, Kaczynski and Richmond will continue to disrupt traditional political campaigns, and perhaps even spur a reexamination of the criteria that we use to measure our elected representatives in the very near future.

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