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OFA Targets Congress on Guns and Some Members Fire Back

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, February 27 2013

Last Friday, Organizing for Action, President Obama's controversial 501c4 continuation of his campaign apparatus, sent out a wave of emails asking supporters to step up their efforts in support of his push for a vote in Congress on gun control. Some people were asked to share or like a graphic on Facebook, to get their friends engaged; about 150,000 did so. That's a respectable number--if you divided it equally across every Congressional district, that's a few hundred people each. Some were also asked to reach out to their Members of Congress, and one of the options they were given was to tweet at them.

Here at techPresident, we've long argued that Obama and OFA had the potential to alter the power balance between the White House and Congress by activating their huge grass-roots campaign network to put pressure on Members in their districts. Now that it's happening, whatever else you might say about OFA--whose funding mechanism looks like a classic influence-peddling scheme--this new level of aggressive grass-roots outreach is bound to raise hackles.

One sign of this is the ridiculous charge emanating from Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), the same Member who has already threatened to impeach Obama if he moves on gun legislation, and who invited Ted Nugent as his guest to the State of the Union address, that OFA is running a "phony spam campaign" using "fake spambots" on Twitter to harass his office with pro-gun control messages. On Facebook, Stockman complains:

We've received a grand total of 16 tweets following Obama's command to his followers for people to tweet their congressman demanding a vote on gun control. (Meanwhile we've received at least 1,000 pro-gun emails from real constituents.)

But only six appear to be actual people. The other 10 link back to what appear to be spambot accounts. They use the default egg avatar, have account names resembling auto-suggested names, only tweet promotional, sponsored messages and follow mostly MSNBC anchors or media outlets, not actual people. They at least don't appear to be actual people.

Even more interesting, two of these accounts happened to tweet us back-to-back and share the follower, former Obama "digital strategist" Brad Schenck, who somehow found and followed them before they ever tweeted anything or followed any real people.

Investigations of other targeted accounts find the overwhelming majority of Obama-promoted gun control messages are coming from accounts created in just the last 48 hours, which all appear to be automatically-generated spambots.

This story is ludicrous on its face, but that hasn't stopped Fox News from reporting it as straight news--or CNN from doing an interview with me examining the controversy.

None of the reasons Stockman cites for charging that these accounts are fake prove anything. If there was an organized effort to automatically generate "spambots" then we'd be seeing thousands of bogus accounts, not a few dozen. What's far more likely is that these are genuinely new Twitter users, prompted by OFA to message their Members. This is no different than a group asking its email list to send a pre-written email to their member of Congress, and I've never seen that kind of behavior denounced as "fake" or covered as news.

As for the supposed smoking gun, the discovery that two of the accounts share the same follower, Brad Schenck (who actually is a current, not former, OFA digital strategist)?

First of all, there's no way for Stockman or anyone else to know when Schenck followed someone else. The Twitter API does not provide timestamps for follow actions. And from what I understand, OFA's digital organizers commonly use a tool that automatically has their Twitter account follow people who show they are interested in a hashtag campaign. In this case, that's what most probably happened with Schenk. This exchange, which occurred during this push around #WeDemandAVote, shows Schenck explaining to a pro-gun Twitter user who was confused by his follow that he had started following her for that reason.

I know none of this will stop bloggers on the right from hyperventilating about this nonsense, but there is a serious takeaway to all of this: on some issues, the White House is use the same forces and techniques that powered Obama's electoral mobilizations--and it's showing a willingness to take the fight into Members' districts, something rarely seen. And that's bound to trigger pushback.

Update: Here's CNN's report, debunking Stockman's charges pretty convincingly. And I get the last word...