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How Revolutionary is Obama's Anti-FISA Group?

BY Patrick Ruffini | Friday, July 4 2008

Earlier this week, Allen at The Next Right wrote about an intriguing twist to Barack Obama's use of campaign social networking tools: his supporters are actively using MyBO to organize against Obama's stand on FISA. The group is now up to 18,240 members, the largest such group on his website.

Obama is getting lots of credit for allowing this kind of thing to go on under his digital roof, most prominently from the Jay Rosens and Jeff Jarvises of the world.

But this development is more properly seen as a natural evolution in any open, networked system that is allowed to operate in the political space. The credit belongs to his supporters, not Obama.

It's now a truism that when presented with an open platform, users will hack it to serve their purposes, not necessarily those of the sponsor. Many times, those two sets of priorities are intertwined (e.g. supporters desire to get involved matched with a campaign's need for volunteers), though in this case, they weren't.

The Obama camp had little choice in the matter. MyBO is a goose laying some pretty golden eggs, and to practice blatant censorship would endanger the gusher of cash and volunteers it's helped generate. Also, I suspect if you asked them privately, they'll say they love that this is happening. Why? Because the controversy and meta-coverage drives more people to use the tools. How many progressives signed up for MyBO this week just to join this group and will stick around to help elect Obama in the fall? At the end of the day, only one metric matters: unique visitors.

As intruiging as this is, however, there is a danger that we'll use a superficial semblance of openness to give the Obama campaign a pass on the key issue: whether Obama is actually responding to this protest in any meaningful way. Isn't that the point of having these tools, after all? That the candidate will actually listen and maybe even modify his policies as a result?

Jarvis nails it when he writes,

Now if a campaign is going to argue that it’s truly grassroots, what is it to do with a revolt or protest from within? I’ve argued since Howard Dean’s run in 2004 that campaigns aren’t or can’t really be bottom-up when it comes to policy. They are necessarily propagandistic: This is what the candidate says. Indeed, Dean’s supporters acted like white blood cells in his blog discussions quite effectively surrounding and strangling dissent and opponents in the bloodstream. That’s the way campaigns have to work if you’re going to decide what this guy stands for and whether to vote for him, right? It’s about the message, no?

But for a "movement" that professes to be "bottom-up" ("we are the change we've been waiting for") this poses a significant test. Is Obama actually a leader in his own right, or a vessel for the aspirations and policy preferences of his supporters? If he gets in, won't he ultimately have to make some big decisions alone or with his closest advisors, in the solitude of the Oval Office?

Obama has professed his desire to bring openness and transparency to government. This may mean things like policy wikis and features like No. 10's online petitions area. What happens when newly disempowered Republicans call Obama's bluff and start flooding these tools, and Obama is forced to ignore their suggestions. "Bottom up" government is suddenly going to look a whole lot better to conservatives, and Obama may look like a hypocrite for ignoring the wishes of his constituents.

As intriguing as the anti-FISA group is, it may be a little more than a fig leaf if Obama is going to allow these tools to function as a backwater while he keeps doing what he was going to do anyway in the foreground.