Santorum

Rick Santorum

In 2003, the columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage held a contest among his readers to create a definition for the word ‘santorum‘ as a response to comments by then-U.S. Senator Rick Santorum that had been criticized as anti-gay. Savage announced the winning entry, which defined ‘santorum’ as ‘the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.’

He created a web site, spreadingsantorum.com (and santorum.com), to promote the definition, which became a prominent search result for Santorum’s name on several web search engines. In 2010 Savage offered to take the site down if Santorum donated US$5 million to Freedom to Marry, a group advocating legal recognition of same-sex marriages. In 2011 Santorum asked Google to remove the definition from its search engine index. Google refused, responding that the company does not remove content from search results except in very limited circumstances.

In the interview which sparked the controversy, Santorum said there is a relationship between the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and liberalism and relativism. He argued that moral relativism involves accepting any adult consensual behavior in the privacy of people’s homes, even if the behavior might otherwise be considered deviant. Santorum believes this attitude leads to an unhealthy culture. Santorum said that, while he had no problem with homosexuality, he did have a problem with homosexual acts, ‘as I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships. And that includes a variety of different acts, not just homosexual.’ He continued: ‘We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.’

Santorum said he was arguing against any relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman, the basis in his view of a stable society: ‘That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.’ The interview prompted an angry reaction from gay rights activists and some politicians. A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee described Santorum’s views as divisive and reckless, while conservative activists saw them as a ‘principled opposition to same-sex marriage.’ In a ‘New York Times’ op-ed, Savage responded to Santorum’s comments, arguing that the remarks amounted to an overt Republican appeal to homophobic voters. A reader of Savage’s column, ‘Savage Love,’ subsequently suggested the contest to create a new definition for ‘santorum.’ Observing that he had previously sought to coin the sexual neologism ‘pegging,’ Savage agreed, writing: ‘There’s no better way to memorialize the Santorum scandal than by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.’

Savage set up a website, spreadingsantorum.com, to spread awareness of the term; the site features the definition over a brown splattered stain on an otherwise-white page. Savage also set up another website, santorum.com, that displays the same content. ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’ reported in 2006 that the site appeared at the top of a Google search for Santorum’s name. When asked whether he was concerned about the effect on Santorum’s children, Savage responded that gays and lesbians also have children, who are required to listen to comparisons of gay relationships to incest and bestiality. He also said, ‘The only people who come at me wringing their hands about Santorum’s children are idiot lefties who don’t get how serious the right is about destroying us.’

In a July 2011 video on ‘Funny or Die,’ Savage proposed to redefine Santorum’s first name if Santorum did not stop criticizing homosexuality. In his column, Savage observed that ‘Santorum hasn’t laid off the gay bashing, as it’s all he’s got,’ and endorsed a reader suggestion to re-define ‘rick’ as a verb. Santorum discussed the issue in a February 2011 interview with ‘Roll Call’: ‘It’s one guy. You know who it is. The Internet allows for this type of vulgarity to circulate. It’s unfortunate that we have someone who obviously has some issues. But he has an opportunity to speak.’ After announcing he might stand for the 2012 presidential nomination, he told ‘The Daily Caller’ that he had not hired anyone to help move Savage’s website lower in search results, but hoped his possible run for president would shift his own site to the top organically.

‘The New York Times’ reported in 2004 that people had tried to use Google bombs (practices, such as creating large numbers of links, that cause a web page to have a high ranking for searches on unrelated or off topic keyword phrases, often for comical or satirical purposes) to link the names of several American politicians, including George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Rick Santorum, to what it called ‘unprintable phrases.’ In 2010, Michael Fertik of ReputationDefender (now Reputation.com), a company to help people influence their Web presence, described the search engine issue as ‘devastating’ and said it was ‘one of the more creative and salient Google issues’ he had ever seen. Mark Skidmore of Blue State Digital said Santorum would find it difficult to shift Savage’s site, because Savage had over 13,000 inbound links against 5,000 for Santorum’s own site.

Though they haven’t acted in this instance, according to ‘Talking Points Memo’ (TPM), ‘Google did crack down’ on google-bombing in the past. In an interview with TPM, search engine expert Danny Sullivan stated that Santorum mischaracterized the campaign as a ‘Google bomb,’ when it was actually a relevant use of the search query ‘santorum’ to create ‘a new definition for the word.’ Sullivan argued that, in a Google bomb, pranksters persuade Google’s algorithm to send the wrong results for a certain term (e.g., when pranksters caused the search term ‘miserable failure’ to point to the White House website’s presidential biography page). In Santorum’s case, on the other hand, the term ‘santorum’ still points to a web page about a ‘santorum’ — which happens to be Savage’s neologism instead of the Senator from Pennsylvania. Sullivan concluded that, ‘for [Senator Santorum] to say Google could get rid of it would be like him saying, ‘I don’t like the word ‘unicorn’ and I think that that definition should go away.”

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