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FWD.us, a Silicon Valley Foray Into Politics, Is Baffling Observers

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, May 1 2013

FWD.us subsidiary Americans for a Conservative Direction has launched new TV ads supporting Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Mark Zuckerberg's new advocacy group FWD.us sparked an uproar among progressives recently when its subsidiaries, Americans for a Conservative Direction and Council for American Job Growth, bolstered two senators' reputations in their home states with a T.V. ad buy.

The ad campaign wouldn't have been a problem — except the buy lauded Republican Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline and Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, for backing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So progressives are presenting FWD, nominally a Silicon Valley immigration-reform group with bipartisan support, with a unified front of outrage.

But privately, some progressives are fascinated by FWD.us' launch, and unable to decide whether FWD.us' overarching strategy of using traditional political tactics of television advertising and inside-the-Beltway lobbyists, combined with a grassroots organizing campaign, is smart or incredibly dumb.

The ads have created potential for a new wedge in a coalition that was already on fragile ground.

The Sierra Club, a group with more than two million members, started a Facebook campaign piggybacking off of FWD.us' Facebook page. The Sierra Club's page directs readers to send messages with a plug-in called ActionSprout, directed to Zuckerberg himself, urging the Facebook founder to pull the ads.

"Just last week, the Sierra Club announced our support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants - so we know how important immigration reform is to the future of our country," Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive vice president told techPresident via e-mail. "The way to achieve reform, however, isn’t by pushing dirty fuel schemes that threaten our future and our families. Mark Zuckerberg has made comments in the past recognizing that we need to pursue a clean energy future, and there is no reason he needs to trade those principles for a few political points."

Both Begich and Graham support the current comprehensive immigration bill. The ads are meant to make immigration reform easier to swallow by playing up the lawmakers' views on the environment, palatable to the conservatives they need to keep happy to stay in office.

But it's clearly a bitter pill for the Sierra Club, and that's not the only awkward situation created by Facebook's foray into politics. It was reported Tuesday that Facebook had declined to run ads by CREDO Action using Zuckerberg's image in them. (Ironically, Sierra Club is collecting signatures on an online petition on Causes.com, which FWD.us' founder and president, Joe Green, co-founded.)

In addition to a running stream of comments on its Facebook page asking why FWD.us is running the ads, there's some evidence in social media that FWD's approach is putting off some in the tech community too.

"Zuck's new lobbying organization fwd.us is cynical and crooked and it's going to bite the tech industry in the hand," tweeted Joel Spolsky, a writer and software developer in New York City, last Friday, one of the few technologists who've expressed dismay in public at FWD's tactics.

Josh Miller, CEO at Branch in New York City — who writes that he was a prospective funder disappointed by a pitch Green delivered at a recent lunch event — published an op-ed with BuzzFeed that criticized FWD.us as opaque and possibly even misleading.

Some progressives wonder why FWD.us began its campaign by picking such an inflammatory issue.

"My first instinct is that this is bad strategy, if you're [also] trying to appeal to the employees of the [big tech] companies," said one Bay Area technology strategist who didn't want to be named. "The trick is to do it in a way that doesn't undermine your support. It's possible to make the two sides happy, but this just wasn't very creative."

Many workers in the tech sector support clean energy, and the ad campaign has the potential to alienate that base of people who might have contributed financially or volunteered for FWD.us, they noted.

It also runs against stands several FWD contributors have taken in the past.

Some of FWD.us' high-profile contributors are also known for their companies' work in clean energy. The most notable is Google, which has pledged support for renewable energies. Google executive Eric Schmidt is a FWD supporter and, elsewhere in his political credentials, chair of the board at the New America Foundation. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers General Partner John Doerr, another big Silicon Valley name to lend his credentials to FWD, is one of the biggest funders of big bets on renewable energy technologies. He cried during a TED talk in 2007, telling the audience, "I don't think we're going to make it."

On the other hand, progressives in Silicon Valley speaking on background said that the two senators are unlikely to move left on Keystone or ANWR. So it isn't as if FWD's air cover grants permission for new behavior. And the two senators are already coming under attack from television ads from anti-immigration reform groups in their home states.

A FWD spokeswoman says the group is simply supporting legislators who are taking the right position on immigration.

"FWD.us is committed to showing support for elected officials who promote the policy changes needed to build the knowledge economy," Kate Hansen, the spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "Maintaining two separate entities, Americans for a Conservative Direction & the Council for American Job Growth, to support elected officials across the political spectrum – separately – means that we can more effectively communicate with targeted audiences of their constituents."

That's the same response she sent to ThinkProgress, which earlier reported on the ads.