Obama and the dark side of social networking

Now that the Palin Hotmail Hack has had its 15-minutes or so of notoriety we can revisit something much more interesting, and important: the Obama campaign's use of social networking and mobility to smother critics. This is change you can believe in. In a 17 September Chicago Tribune story, reporter John McCormick reported about the Obama Action Wire, which is based on the campaign's database of millions of Obama suporters. "Now Obama's presidential campaign is increasingly using the list to beat back media messages it does not like, calling on supporters to flood radio and television stations when those opposed to him run anti-Obama ads or appear on talk shows," according to McCormick. Days before the story appeared, the Action Wire made itself felt: the campaign "orchestrated a massive stream of complaints on the phone lines of Tribune Co.-owned WGN-AM in Chicago when the radio station hosted author David Freddoso, who has written a controversial book about the Illinois Democrat." According to the story, the McCain campaign, which like its rival uses the Internet for fund-raising and organizing, has nothing remotely like this. The Tribune story has the official campaign take on Action Wire: "The Action Wire serves as a means of arming our supporters with the facts to take on those who spread lies about Barack Obama and respond forcefully with the truth, whether it's an author passing off fiction as biography, a Web site spreading baseless conspiracy theories or a TV station airing an ad that makes demonstrably false claims," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. Or, in other words, whatever the Obama campaign decides are lies, baseless conspiracy theories and demonstrably false claims. Because the alerts generated by the Action Wire galvanize Obama supporters not into thought, or even debate, but action. Emails with radio station phone numbers can generate instant calls from cell phones, and trigger a kind of network effect among passionate believers, focusing outrage and action on a very specific target. You can evaluate the tone of one of the alerts, which was posted at the conservative "National Review." And here are some of the Obama campaign "talking points" aimed at one its targets, conservative writer Stanley Kurtz, appearing on a Chicago radio station in late August. You can get a sense of how these talking points and suggestions (like "Use the talking points above to help you speak confidently and concisely") were translated into truthtelling and debate with this first-hand account of what happened when the Wire targeted one Chicago radio talk show. The account is by another conservative radio talk host and columnist, Guy Benson. My personal favorite: "One female caller, when pressed about what precisely she objected to, simply replied, 'We just want it to stop!' Which, one has to admit, is certainly concise. The Obama campaign and its defenders have argued that the Action Wire is a defense against the possibility of Obam being "swift-boated," a reference to the Bush-Kerry presidential campaign when TV adds and blog posts by a group of Navy Swiftboat veterans called into question some aspects of Senator John Kerry's account of his Vietnam military service. But the Swiftboat debate was exactly that -- a debate. By definition, TV ads and Internet blog posts enter into a larger world of examination, analysis, argument, counter-argument and, one would hope, possibly even reflection. The Obama Action Wire turns that dynamic inside out: it masses sympathizers to, in effect, choke off debate and argument. At least some of the callers to the talk shows seem to have come from well-outside the radio station's broadcast range. They weren't calling in to debate, since they had no idea what had been said. Except, what they had been told through and by the Obama social network. Which brings to mind Yeat's poem, "The Second Coming" -- "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

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