08/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Online War the Democrats Are Losing: Where's the Strategy?

The Internet's had some great successes on behalf of Barack Obama. But net-savvy Democrats are being beaten by the simplest of all online technologies, and nobody to my knowledge is designing a response.

Building on models like MoveOn to Facebook, the Obama campaign and its supporters have raised huge sums of money and built impressive virtual organizations in support of his candidacy. Groups like ActBlue have created fundraising clearinghouses, which bloggers like Howie Klein, Jane Hamsher, Digby and Crooks and Liars have in turn used to create effective fundraising tools for Congressional Democrats.

With all this expertise, digital campaigning should be asymmetrical warfare. After all, these forces are lined up against a candidate who seems to resent newfangled contraptions like computers. If God didn't want us to write with feather pens he wouldn't have made birds.

But the Right's winning one war: the email war. That could prove decisive. It would be ironic if, after all these innovations, Democrats were beaten by a tool that's so crude yet effective. Nothing to join, no links to follow: just read the email, hit "forward," and enter all your friends' names.

Case in point: I received the "Captain Jeffrey Porter" email yesterday -- the one that says Obama snubbed the troops in Afghanistan -- even though its been discredited by the Army Times. Capt. Porter has admitted he was wrong and apologized. Still, emails like this one keep getting distributed anyway. Most recipients -- and many senders -- don't know these emails are false. They probably never will.

Emails have the added impact of appearing intimate, friendly, and truly "social." For example, read the header on this one, with its informality (complete with reassuringly casual errors):

Date: Tue, 29 Jul 2008 13:09:34 -0400
Subject: Fro my ex-soldier's wife

Subject: ok, rare to get a fwd from read it :)
Date: Tuesday, July 29, 2008, 9:16 AM

Hi all FYI--for what freedom is worth.

T------- and Jeff Porter are our friends who were in our ward when we
lived in Provo. They now live in Virginia.

I don't know each of your personal political convictions, and appologize
if anyone finds this offensive. I thought it was important enough to
share. This is Jeff's first hand view of Senator Obama.

A copy of the now-discredited email then follows. I've received quite a few others, too. Several are blatantly racist "jokes" that have Obama speaking in an Amos-and-Andy dialect. A few others have been targeted toward Jewish recipients, sent by people who know my Jewish background. These emails include "guilt by association" articles by right-wing smear artist Debbie Schlussel -- "Obama knows a guy who knows a guy who met Louis Farrakhan's mother," that sort of thing -- as well as the usual "he really is a Muslim but won't tell you" stuff.

There's an organizational lesson to be learned here -- one that should be studied by political researchers, consultants, and campaign managers.

The Jewish-targeted emails I've received are an especially interesting lesson. Without any social networking technology, these emails are successfully being custom-designed for a specific demographic group. Then they're delivered to that group in a targeted way, using only the pre-digital power of existing social relationships. After the Debbie Schlussels of the world write the content, members of any number of social networks (Jewish, Christian, business-oriented, etc.) go to work on an all-volunteer basis. And it only takes a minute to do your part ....

Email: It's a digital pyramid scheme, with words instead of money as the currency. it's hard to beat the logarithmic power of multiplying the number of all your friends by the number of all their friends, and all their friends' friends ... ad infinitum. And so easy to do! Why, even John McCain could learn. (He could get one of those pre-recorded courses they sell on late-night TV. You know ... "How to Use a PC" by The Computer Professor, that sort of thing ...)

How should Democrats and the Left respond? They can hit "reply all" and send a debunking note, as I do. But that's a defensive play, a tiny holding action. There's no overall email strategy, or even a counter-strategy to what's being done now. There are only questions: Is the right response for Democrats to send their own emails? Shouldn't they show a greater dedication to the truth than these right-wing emailers do? But if they do that, won't they be much less effective?

Ethical Democrats wouldn't feel very good about being part of an email army that floods the nation with tales of Vicki Iseman or the Keating Five. But if not that, then what? Maybe someone can kick-start some discussions about the political email wars: what's happening, who's losing, and what can be done to turn it around. There should be a way to use the power of emails more effectively without compromising basic ethical principles.

RJ Eskow blogs at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog
RJ Eskow at the Huffington Post