In an unprecedented attempt to put out a fire in his own house, Senator Barack Obama yesterday issued a response to supporters who had been protesting his position on government surveillance. The release was followed by an 90 minute interchange on MyBarackObama.com between campaign officials and supporters (though as far as I could tell, the campaign officials made no comments themselves but just read the comments being made, leaving it unclear who was actually reading and for how long)..
Unfortunately, there was nothing in Obama's response that addressed the harsh criticism some of his supporters have voiced. I could go into detail on why the statement stinks, but since this is the Internet I don't have to, since I can instead direct you to the excellent point-by-point analysis offered by Glenn Greenwald. My focus here will be the novel political dynamic unleashed by the Obama campaign's social networking site, MyBarackObama.com.
These are uncharted waters we are dealing with here. Yesterday I asked the question whether 18,000 people protesting on the campaign's own web site (out of hundreds of thousands) were a lot or a little. Apparently they were enough to get the attention of the campaign and the candidate.
The comments were a mix of people who were star-struck that Obama had noticed them and written a reply, people who felt any criticism on the site was inappropriate, people who just spouted typical Internet invective at each other, but then an awful lot of extremely informed and thoughtful people who did not back down an inch.
Some defending Obama's position questioned whether the protestors were really from the Obama camp or were Republicans who had logged on to wreak havoc. However, since MyBarackObama.com is a full-fledged social networking site, one can check the profile of each commenter, see how long they have been active on the site, what action groups they are part of, and so on. It appeared that many angry critics were people who had put a lot of time and money into the campaign.
The whole episode raised more questions than it answered. Certainly what is going on here is something new. There are going to be many more controversial issues. A presidential candidate can't always be having to log on to the Internet to defend himself from his own supporters. I am reminded The Obama campaign promised to give its supporters new Internet tools to empower them to make the campaign their own. Now that it as done so, the leadership has to be wondering if it was a good idea. of the musicians who have figured out how to make modest livelihoods marketing their music directly to fans over MySpace, only to discover that doing requires spending hours every day maintaining the sort of direct relationship fans on social networking sites expect.
On the other hand, overall this has to be considered a victory for, and an extension of, democracy. This is a clear-cut case of a candidate promising one thing and doing another. Turns out that in the age of the online campaign there will be a higher price for this time-honored activity.
The folks at Obama HQ better tighten their saddle. They have let the horse out of the barn, and it might be a bumpy ride.
* Some sample comments:
Frankly, I'm disappointed. No, Senator Barack, it's not a "deal breaker". But even using these words is almost like taunting your position in our face. Almost like you are taking our votes for granted because you know we have not choice but to vote for you. No, I don't want McCain, but I can say with clarity that my personal enthusiasm, and many of others who I talk to, have certainly diminished by a huge margin.
At the end of the day, the question is, do you want your supporters to vote for you because you are the lesser of the two evils, because they have "no choice" when comparing the alternative (as you say yourself) or do you want people to vote for you because they are proud of what you stand for?
Christine, I, too, did not like that "deal breaker" line. I felt like it was dismissive, especially when he has been trying soo hard to get the gun advocates, the evangelicals, the death penalty advocates...It's like, ok, get lost. I got plenty more voters and money!! What has happened to him???