The Obama campaign developed powerful Web tools that might shape government but are more likely to build opposition movements, revolutions and possibly terrorist cells.
By Christopher Dickey | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Little revolts already have taken place inside Barack Obama‘s global revolution. So much faith, so much hope, so much money was poured into his campaign by so very many people that probably this was inevitable. All over the world the public feels like it’s got a piece of him. And among the hundreds of millions of Obama lovers who saw in the softly smiling candidate whatever they wanted or needed to see, a great many must eventually feel scorned by a hard president taking on a very tough agenda.
Certainly in the Arab world, where an Egyptian friend tells me, “Obama is more popular than inKenya,” there are predictable rumblings of concern and resentment. The initial misgivings are about Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emanuel, the son and grandson of Israelis, as his chief of staff. And it would seem that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the master strategist and media maven of Al Qaeda, thinks the time is ripe already for his terror news network, As-Sahab, to tap into any incipient sense of disappointment.
In a video posted Nov. 19, Zawahiri showed news footage of Obama among rabbis at the Western Wall of the old city of Jerusalem and called him a “house Negro” doing his masters’ bidding. That the term is deeply offensive, even Zawahiri knows. So to make his point he showed a lengthy clip of the late Malcolm X, or Malik al-Shabazz, defining the difference in history between the slaves who lived in the owner’s house, loyal and protective, and those in the field, who, if the master’s home caught on fire, prayed for a strong wind to come along. “I am a field Negro,” Shabazz concluded. This aspect of the terrorist video exploiting an earlier icon of African-American politics to condemn the current president-elect did not make it into many of the mainstream media reports last week, but Al Qaeda wouldn’t care about that. Zawahiri knows he’s reaching out directly to his intended audience, bypassing the press completely. That’s what you do with a political Web site, even if your politics are terrorism.
The Internet has always been just as open to purveyors of hate as it is to those who promise hope. It is not an ideology or ethos. It’s a collection of tools for communication—and for organization and mobilization—that anyone can use. Al Qaeda discovered that a long time ago. When it comes to building community, writes forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, “the intensity of feelings developed online rival those developed offline.” Indeed, they may be stronger. In his recent book, “Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21st Century” (University of Pennsylvania Press), Sageman argues that, thanks to the Internet, “the followers choose whom to follow, and the other leaders fade away.” Terror networks, he says, are “a mixture of online and offline elements, and their respective in-person and virtual discussions mutually influence each other … They are networks within networks.”
What concerns me here is that the Obama campaign has now shown the world, bad guys as well as good guys, the state of the art. This isn’t criticism and certainly wasn’t the intent, but it’s unavoidable. And while the president-elect’s supporters talk about using the Web to build his democratic government, what experience has shown us so far is that the model is most effective when it is used by the forces of opposition, by outsiders. Whether they are on the left or right, progressive or reactionary, pacifist or terrorist, makes little difference when you’re talking about the basic techniques to organize and mobilize.
In Israel, for instance, former prime minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party has emulated the Obama site almost byte for byte in his bid to regain power. In Britain, it’s the Tories who’ve made the most of the blogosphere. And one of the immediate concerns of the President 2.0 practitioners around Obama is to find ways to bring the masses they mobilized under control, or at least steer their passions in a consistently supportive direction now that they’re “no longer on the sidelines bitching, no longer just sending the shrill petition,” as one of Obama’s Web gurus put it. “You have this fire hose of activism, whether by way of funding, getting out the vote, sending letters to Congress …,” says Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, which is the company at the center of Obama’s Internet operations. “It’s really about editorial oversight, where you want to direct this stuff.”
As the team turns from campaigning through MyBarackObama.com to the transition on Change.gov, you can see it dialing back on some of the more freewheeling exchanges. On MyBO, so many Web communities took shape over the last two years and so many comments were being posted daily that when Senator Obama offended many of his admirers last summer by voting for a revised electronic-surveillance law known as the FISA bill, an insurgency erupted on his own site. As one of the milder posts put it, “Like many longtime Obama supporters, I am growing increasingly troubled over what appears to be a developing pattern of compromise that is making Mr. Obama appear more and more like every other politician that we’ve seen for the past few decades.”
At the time, Obama scored points with supporters by allowing the FISA rebellion to run its course. That, decidedly, was not like other politicians. But Change.gov isn’t taking such chances, at least for the time being. Instead of posting all comments on “community blogs,” it’s having Obama advisers read the e-mail, filter it and respond on YouTube videos. Since there may be upward of 10,000 comments on a specific subject, and a video clip is only going to last about five minutes, it would seem there’s little risk of straying off-message.
Gensemer told me over the phone a couple of weeks ago that he and his colleagues at Blue State Digital pick and choose their mostly left-wing causes and clients very carefully. “Our progressive idealism will always be intact,” he said. Thus among the many accounts they signed up after working on the Howard Dean presidential bid in 2004 have been Save Darfur, George Soros’s Americans Coming Together and Al Gore’s We Can Solve It. “The key is not about technology, not about design,” Gensemer said. “It’s about having a message.”
But the more Gensemer described the mechanics of the operations, the more obvious it became just how widely available the basic tools are to anyone with any cause or message, and they’re not just about spreading information but inciting action. “You are building fundamentally, at first, a mailing list,” Gensemer told me. There should be a very low barrier for entry, and once someone has joined “you build on that relationship by building a campaign narrative”: we are going to change things, yes we can. E-mails go out asking people to do more than sympathize. “Virtual” and “viral,” those overused words that suggest passive viewing, are not part of the Blue State program. “Those e-mails that go out are asking people to perform action after action after action,” said Gensemer. One of the founders of Facebook was on the Obama team, and there are many similarities with the major networking sites. But this is about much more than “create your profile and post your picture,” as Gensemer put it. Those running MyBO saw very quickly who was responding to what message and when, and unlike Obama’s Facebook and MySpace pages, on each of which he had about a million “friends,” at MyBO “we own the data,” said Gensemer.
The incitement to organize and act is combined with the existence of infrastructure already on the ground. During the Democratic Party caucuses early this year, for instance, “the goal was if somebody signed up with a post code in Iowa, it was expected that a paid organizer would contact them by e-mail or phone,” said Gensemer. Eventually, MyBO was giving its partisans the wherewithal to create their own teams. You can see this process, which raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, presented quite matter of factly on the “MyBO tour” on YouTube. “Next I am going to show you how to set up your own personal fundraising page where you can set a goal, track your progress with a thermometer, and write a personal message to your friends and family about why they should donate,” explains a young woman at MyBO. “So, I am going to go ahead and set my goal for $1,000, which might seem like a lot, but you’d really be surprised by how much you’ll be able to raise if you are able to convey why this is so important to you.”
With everyone from Bibi to Zawahiri watching and learning from such techniques, it’s fair to say the surprises have only just begun.
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