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Is America Ready for ‘WeinerGate’?

Lewd photo sent on New York Democrat's Internet account.

By 5.31.11

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Sunday evening, the New York Daily News took the unusual step of publishing a statement in which a 21-year-old college student from Seattle denied being the mistress of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). Gennette Cordova said she had never even met the congressman, explaining that an April message on her Twitter account describing Weiner as her "boyfriend" was intended as a joke. Yet it was not what Cordova said on Twitter that made her statement so newsworthy. Rather, it was what was sent to her late Friday night from the congressman's Twitter account: a link to a photo showing the crotch of a man clad in gray underwear, quite visibly in a state of concupiscent arousal.

That Tweet (as Twitter messages are called) was potentially visible to the more than 40,000 people who follow Weiner's Twitter feed, including his political enemies, who immediately interpreted this shocking message as evidence that the liberal Democrat was up to online hanky-panky. Employing the unfortunate double entendre to which the congressman's name lends itself, the evident scandal was quickly classified by its own Twitter "hashtag" label: #WeinerGate.

Within hours, the story was reported by a pseudonymous writer on BigGovernment.com, a conservative website whose publisher Andrew Breitbart has become a bête noire of the American Left, and by Saturday afternoon that story had become the hottest meme on the blogosphere. By then, however, Weiner had sent several Twitter messages claiming that he was the victim of an Internet hacker, a claim elaborated Sunday in a statement from the congressman's spokesman: "Anthony's accounts were obviously hacked. He doesn't know the person named by the hacker, and we will be consulting on what steps to take next."

Can you guess what steps those would be? By Monday evening, Weiner had lawyered up, retaining an attorney to advise him on "what civil or criminal actions should be taken," the congressman's spokesman told Politico. Exactly why Weiner would need an attorney's advice in this case is unclear. As one blogger who has followed the scandal observed, it should be an easy fee for any competent lawyer: "Call the police. That will be $1,000."

Indeed, Weiner's claim that he was targeted by a hacker amounts to a criminal accusation. If he is telling the truth, a federal crime has been committed, one which might have national security implications. If the online accounts of members Congress are vulnerable to hijacking, who is safe? Could the hackers who (allegedly) penetrated Weiner's account also hack into the e-mails of members of congressional intelligence and defense committees? Yet the congressman's office has said nothing about reporting this hacking to the FBI or other law enforcement agencies. According to CNN, neither the FBI nor Capitol Police are investigating.

Weiner, who is not camera-shy, waited until Monday to give his first TV interview about the incident, and seemed strangely dismissive. "I was hacked. It happens to people, and you move on," the 46-year-old Democrat told CNN's Dana Bash. "This is a prank -- not a terribly creative one -- and it's a distraction." If Weiner was the victim of malicious identity theft, why would he be so eager to "move on" from this "distraction"? That's just one of many obvious questions provoked by WeinerGate, which is a scandal that will no doubt be confusing to many people not familiar with Twitter, the popular social networking site that permits people to send out short messages limited to 140 characters. Indeed, the scandal was confusing to Cordova, the Twitter user to whom the Tweet with the lurid link was sent from Weiner's account.

In her 600-word statement to the Daily News, Cordova said she logged into her Twitter account Friday and was surprised to find an unusually large number of "mentions." (A "mention" is when someone posts a message that includes your Twitter name. The congressman is @RepWeiner, while Cordova's account -- which has since been deleted -- was @GennetteNicole.) Cordova said she recognized some of these mentions as coming from the account of someone who had "harassed" her after she first followed Weiner's Twitter feed. "Since I had dealt with this person and his cohorts before I assumed that the tweet and the picture were their latest attempts at defaming the Congressman and harassing his supporters," she said in her statement.

That statement was interpreted by several reporters (including media critic Howard Kurtz) as tantamount to proof that the whole story was "fake," and that Weiner's enemies had indeed hacked his account or somehow fabricated the offensive Tweet directed at Cordova. When she subsequently re-emerged with a new account on Twitter, however, Cordova said she had been misunderstood: While she had initially believed this was a phony smear created by the congressman's enemies, she later "realized it was real" -- the message had indeed come from Weiner's account -- although she "never once speculated about the alleged hacking." Cordova is a student journalist who writes for the campus newspaper at her community college in Bellingham, Wash., but the media flubs prompted her to remark: "A lot of these journalists are incompetent hacks… maybe I should reconsider my professional aspirations."

Reporters trying to cover WeinerGate kept flubbing basic facts of the story, some reporting that the Tweet that started the scandal was sent on Thursday, others saying it was sent Saturday. Part of the problem was that the facts were strewn across the Internet, scattered among several different blogs, often mixed in with speculation and sarcastic commentary, so that locating the facts and synthesizing them into a coherent narrative was inevitably difficult. (Bryan Preston of Pajamas Media compiled a summary Monday evening.) Another part of the problem was that the blogs providing best coverage of the story -- including the award-winning Ace of Spades HQ -- are conservative, while most journalists are liberal and therefore unwilling to credit the suspicions these hostile bloggers voiced against a Democratic congressman who claimed to be the victim of Internet mischief. Joan Walsh of Salon went so far as to claim that the whole thing was ginned up by Andrew Breitbart, an accusation he angrily rejected Monday evening: "We are simply reporting the facts."

Others have gone farther than Breitbart's writers, seeing Friday's "Twitter incident" (as Politico called it in their headline) as part of a pattern of Weiner's online behavior. The congressman, who last summer married a longtime aide Hillary Clinton, appears to have exchanged private direct messages (DMs) on Twitter with more than one attractive woman, including porn performer Ginger Lee. While Weiner is followed by tens of thousands of Twitter users, he follows fewer than 200 accounts himself, among which conservative blogger Jim Hoft noted a number of young women of no particular political interest. Which may be significant, considering that Twitter DMs can only be sent between users who are mutually following each other's feeds.

Of course, this pattern that aroused conservative suspicions may not signify any inappropriate intent on the congressman's part, and there may yet be an innocent explanation for how his Twitter account was used to send that bulging underwear photo to a college student. But if Weiner was the victim of hackers, as he says, the sooner those culprits are brought to justice, the safer the Internet -- and the congressman's career -- will be.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.