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Surveillance Protest Group Tops Obama Website

by Ari Melber

Protesters are storming Barack Obama's website. But they all support Obama.

A grassroots group of activists has been organizing on MyBo, Obama's official social networking portal, to protest the Senator's recent decision to back controversial legislation granting the President more spying powers. The effort hit a big milestone on Tuesday afternoon: It is now the largest self-organized group on Obama's website, topping networks that were launched over a year ago. The spying protest, "Senator Obama -- Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity -- Get FISA Right," launched last week. (See Obama Network Organizes and Revolts Over Spying, The Nation.)

Membership spiked to about 8,900 people on Tuesday, edging out a student group with roughly 8,600 members, and one organizer estimated that the growth rate reached a rapid four percent during the daytime. The group initially spread through the Obama network, since the site's platform instantly connects members through a dedicated email listserve. On Monday, for example, over 200 emails shot across the wire, reaching the roughly 2,300 members who opted to receive individual messages. The exchanges ranged from policy debates, like whether immunity was acceptable if the telephone companies acted in good faith, to organizing strategies, such as promoting the group on sharing sites like Digg. Then some activists open-sourced the project, creating a wiki-hub for additional actions -- from calling Obama's office to urging Keith Olbermann to promote the group -- and launched partner groups on other sites like Facebook.

"To reach number one, we're going to need all of us to start talking to - and emailing - their family and friends," wrote blogger Mike Stark in a missive to the group at 3:46am on Monday. "[Obama] said he'd open up government and respond to the people instead of the special interests," he added, "so let's force him to respond." Stark also recruited members at the blog OpenLeft, while the group began drawing traffic from coverage in Wired, The Nation, TPM, Time, and The New York Times.

The effort comes in a pivotal period for Obama, who is tapping his enthusiastic base for fundraising and voter turnout, yet shifting his message to prioritize general election themes. In many Democratic presidential campaigns, this is precisely the time when the base is ignored -- or even defied to demonstrate the candidate's independence and "centrism." Obama's base activists, however, are still getting heard. They are reaching each other directly, through the campaign's network, and indirectly, with blogs and reporters covering their argument that Obama should not have backtracked on civil liberties. So far, Obama has not responded substantively, though his campaign was forced to acknowledge the "dialogue" under media prodding. But from the message boards, it looks like most group members want Obama to respond by reaffirming his original opposition to the White House spying bill, not simply acknowledging the conversation.

While Obama's advisers may view this week's activism as inevitable liberal tensions in a general election -- an odd gloss, given the Fourth Amendment's bipartisan credentials -- the key dynamic is the development of a sophisticated network of activists. After all, they're not asking the candidate to be more liberal, they're asking him to hold strong on his own promise to oppose the spying legislation.

Even conservative bloggers are impressed that the Obama Campaign provides an open platform for supporters to organize against the candidate's position. "Rather than react in accordance with the practices of most campaigns by shutting and muffling dissent," observed the GOP blog The Next Right, "Obama is providing dissidents (many of whom are supporters of his) the opportunity to organize on his campaign web-site." The blog contrasted the approach to top-down campaigns on the right. "Can you imagine a Bush campaign reacting like this? I can't."

Netroots activists are imagining -- and demanding -- an even more receptive response from Obama.

Update: A print article in today's New York Times covers the growing impact of this MyBo group, with more reaction from the campaign:

Thousands of [Obama's most ardent supporters] are now using the same grass-roots organizing tools previously mastered by the Obama campaign to organize a protest against his decision. In recent days, more than 7,000 Obama supporters have organized on a social networking site on Mr. Obama's own campaign Web site. They are calling on Mr. Obama to reverse his decision to endorse legislation supported by President Bush to expand the government's domestic spying powers while also providing legal protection to the telecommunication companies that worked with the National Security Agency's domestic wiretapping program after the Sept. 11 attacks... For now, the campaign is trying to put a positive spin on the new FISA fight among its supporters. "The fact that there is an open forum on BarackObama.com where supporters can say whether they agree or disagree speaks to a strength of our campaign," said Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman.

Several activists and bloggers predicted that Mr. Obama's move toward the center on some issues could sharply reduce the intensity of support he has enjoyed from liberal activists. Such enthusiasm helped power his effort to secure the Democratic nomination, and it has been one of his campaign's most important tools for fund-raising and organizing around the country.

Markos Moulitsas, a liberal blogger and founder of the Daily Kos Web site, said he had decided to cut back on the amount of money he would contribute to the Obama campaign because of the FISA reversal. "I will continue to support him," Mr. Moulitsas said in an interview. "But I was going to write him a check, and I decided I would rather put that money with Democrats who will uphold the Constitution."

Ari Melber is The Nation's Net movement correspondent. He is also a contributing editor at Personal Democracy Forum.

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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