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Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag

Posted: July 3, 2008 08:56 PM

Obama Web Site Protest Grows


Online protest has continued to grow against Senator Obama's decision to support legislation granting legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's program of wiretapping without warrants.

As I wrote about yesterday, the protest is taking place on the Obama campaign's social networking site, MyBarackObama.com. The site allows Obama supporters to create online IDs for themselves, and blog and network in a manner similar to Facebook and MySpace.

The largest group on the site now is called "Senator Obama -- Please, No Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right." When I wrote yesterday, it had 12,261 members. As I write this it is approaching 18,000. Many members of the group are actively recruiting new members, with the objective of making the group as large as possible by the time of the FISA vote next week.

The protest comes at a particularly awkward time for Senator Obama. Half of his campaign money thus far has come from small online donors, who are closely associated with the MyBarackObama site. While the campaign is counting on many of these donors to continue contributing in small amounts through November, since becoming the presumptive nominee the campaign has shifted gears to focus more on traditional big-donor fundraising.

The New York Times reports that last week the campaign ran an event in Colorado Springs for $1,000 per person, and two events in Chicago and one in Los Angeles for $28,500 per person. Next week will include several more events with entrance tags of $20,000 or more, including a private dinner with Obama for a minimum donation of $33,100.

A good deal of this activity is the result of the Obama campaign welcoming Hillary Clinton's core funders on board. These are folks who give lots and lots of money. But the sharp turn to big-dollar fundraising comes directly on the heels of Obama's sharp move to the right on a number of issues that small-donor activists care about deeply.

In previous years, that wouldn't mean much because small donors had no way of knowing who each other were or what each other thought. But, as Senator Obama likes to say in his speeches, "not this time." This time they have MyBarackObama.com, and they are using it.

One big unanswered question (it has never come up before) is what kind of numbers a Web protest like this will have to have to achieve significant impact the real political world. Are 18,000 people in the protest group a lot or a little? They are a tiny sliver of the hundreds of thousands of the site's members, but many members are people who were given an account when they gave an online donation and never returned. It is a much small number who actually use the site in the way the Obama campaign hoped: networking online to do offline organizing. As deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said "We said to our online supporters, 'We love you, but we need you to actually go to work in your neighborhood.' Their online support was only great if we could translate it into activity within their community." The power users of MyBarackObama.com are those people. They may not be able to throw down $33,100 for a dinner with their candidate, but they have had a lot to do with him being the one eating all that haute cuisine.

Predictably, there were many comments to my post yesterday. Many were thoughtful, and they were fairly divided pro and con concerning the online protest. The most interesting by far came from Barack Obama himself, by way of a comment pointing me to an interview Obama did with Rolling Stone last March:

This is where the Internet is so powerful. One of the things that surprised me in this campaign is how well we were able to use technology to organize people. There's enormous promise ... The Internet gives young people a tool to be informed continuously. It gives them an opportunity to speak to each other and mobilize themselves. It gives them the opportunity to hold me accountable when I'm not following through on promises that I've made.