By Jonathan Tilove
April 8, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s Web site is by most accounts the best in his business. It is critical to the campaign’s record-breaking fundraising, nimble grass-roots organizing and image as a broad-based, participatory force for change.
But the very virtues of this wiki-world carry peril.
For the first time in the history of presidential politics, outside observers — including journalists and political enemies — have real-time access, complete with search engine, to the thinking, debating and strategizing of the vast cadre that embodies a campaign without being under the campaign’s effective control.
MyBO, as the my.barackobama.com site is called, has more than 700,000 registered members. There are more than 10,000 different affinity groups based on geography, identity, ideology, occupations, hobbies and habits (Smokers for Obama, for one).
Thousands blog, at least intermittently. Members accumulate points for every activity. Too vast to vet, the site must rely on self-discipline and self-policing.
And it is becoming apparent that some forces can and will use provocative statements on MyBO against the candidate.
“When you have so many voices speaking, saying so many different things, it gives you a lot of ammunition to launch attacks on Obama,” said political scientist Kevin Wallsten, who, at the University of California at Berkeley, just finished his dissertation on the blogosphere’s effect on the last presidential campaign.
His point isn’t lost on MyBO’s members.
“Opposition groups are scouring this website for material to use against Obama and finding lots of hateful, extreme material,” warned Birdalone, the online name used by the moderator of MyBO’s International Relations Forum, in a post April 9. (Some MyBO groups are moderated, others are not.)
How should or can the campaign react without messing with MyBO’s — and perhaps its own — essential mojo?
After all, “This campaign is not just a campaign, it’s a movement,” said Kevin LaFleur, a former Marine who grew up in Vermont and, at 28, is studying ethics, peace and global affairs at American University in Washington.
Obama’s people are officially mum, ignoring a reporter’s requests for an interview with any of the 20-something honchos in command — Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook; Joe Rospars, the campaign’s new-media director; and Sam Graham-Felsen, the leading official blogger on the otherwise decentralized site.
However, there is evidence things are tightening up.
LaFleur, who already belongs to 64 different Obama groups, recently tried to launch a new one — White Folks for Obama. His intent was not to provoke but to disarm, his point being that throughout the process white folks have supported Obama in large numbers and will continue to do so. The powers that be stalled him. Instead, he and his girlfriend created a Web site for the group off MyBO.
For the campaign, the largest groups on MyBO, which are organized to mobilize support and raise money, are the most useful and the least dangerous. More likely to cause trouble are the issue forums dominated by a relative handful of highly opinionated people. So why have them?
“It allows people to engage, become passionate, and in a way provide the impression that they are being ‘listened to’ — so even if no one in the Obama campaign ever sees any of these blog posts, it creates a psychological satisfaction that this candidate is allowing me to express my views,” explained Mark Levin of Cambridge, Mass.
Levin, who has participated in the International Relations conversations, described himself in an e-mail as “a 30-yr old armchair foreign policy wonk with an MBA and a penchant for debate.”
Indeed, compared with the usual buttoned-down campaign site, MyBO is bracing in its breadth and openness.
“I think that Obama’s political genius is to see multiple perspectives without losing his ability to make strong and clear judgments based on his best understanding of the situation,” Ben Vos, a 33-year-old evangelical Christian who works as a therapist in Nashville, Tenn., wrote in an e-mail.
Vos, who voted for Bush in 2000, belongs to 25 MyBO groups — including Pro-Life for Obama and Believers for Barack. He also founded Beer Drinkers for Barack to combat Karl Rove’s depiction of Obama as the darling of “the white wine crowd.”
Much of the discussion on MyBO is high-caliber and considerate. Robin Barnes, a physicist from Redmond, Wash., figures Obama set the tone: “The person you’re looking up to, their standards trickle down.”
And for the thousands involved in this potentially historic campaign, MyBO, simply by being there, has enabled a remarkable running record of people’s encounters with race and racism in their communities, in their families and even in themselves. It can be raw and moving, though not always in the on-message best interests of the campaign.
In early April, Gillian Bergeron, a young white woman from South Carolina, wrote a heartfelt e-mail to those she worked with in Obama’s Charleston campaign about the rough time she was having as the field director in Scranton, Pa.
“Racism here trumps anything I’ve seen in the South ever … in my lifetime or working for the campaign — in SC, AL, or TX combined.”
Her message was posted on MyBO, and might have made the kind of news the campaign could do without. Instead, the only commenter was “Matthew from Scranton,” who suggested “removing some of the verbiage in the blog. … It’s pretty offensive to someone who is from here.”
Not long afterward, Bergeron’s post disappeared.
Meanwhile, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Bill Levinson, a Republican management consultant, trolls MyBO for comments about Israel and the United States that might stoke the concerns of some Jews about the Obama campaign. He posts them on his blog on Israpundit, a right-wing, pro-Israeli Web site.
On April 13, under the headline “Obama Blogger: U.S. and Terrorists are Morally Equivalent,” Levinson sampled from a long MyBO posting two days earlier in which Levin suggested that Americans have a blinkered view of the world, that in recent decades the Judeo-Christian West has more blood on its hands than Islam, and that the Israeli-Palestine conflict ought to be seen as “a clash of two equally valid worldviews, a clash of two rights, instead of as a clash between right vs. wrong.”
But to call him an “Obama blogger” was unfair, Levin wrote to Levinson: The campaign “has no control over content posted on these blogs, I think, unless they are abusive in nature.” He added, “in any big-tent campaign, you will get party-line people and then ‘nutjobs’ like me, whom Obama would run away from.”
Levinson argues that if the Obama campaign leaves objectionable posts up, it is effectively sanctioning them, and that they are of a piece with Obama’s association with other “unsavory” figures like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
And, in a nod to the potential for wiki-abuse, Levinson said he had ignored some “really vicious stuff” on MyBO that he took to be the work of agent provocateurs trying to make Obama look bad.
Interestingly, Ted Belnar, the retired lawyer who runs Israpundit from Toronto, hasn’t included Levinson’s MyBO cherry pickings in his daily blasts to an e-mail list of 16,000.
“I don’t think Bill’s findings about my.barackobama.com are that significant,” Belnar explained. “Just because Obama has ultimate control doesn’t mean he endorses what they post.”
But Belnar was OK with posting them on Israpundit, saying they help drive traffic. “If we can get some mileage against Obama,” he said, “let him defend himself.”
Back at MyBO, Birdalone has laid down the law for debate on her forum.
“I am not a Zionist,” she wrote when she raised the warning flag April 9, “but I am very aware of the widespread concern that Rev. (Louis) Farrakhan’s association with Rev. Wright creates an opportunity for opponents to falsely claim that Senator Obama is anti-Semitic. Any posts that support this false claim will not be approved. Examples include direct comparison between the Nazi Holocaust and the oppression of Tibet or Palestinians.”
That same day, the Obama campaign deleted Tony Wicher’s profile from MyBO. Wicher is a 62-year-old computer programmer from Ontario, Calif., whose references to “Zionist Thought Police” and Israeli “apartheid” made him a favorite Israpundit target.
When he went to log in, Wicher said, “I find out my account is gone.” He tried signing up with a different e-mail, but got caught.
“I am a huge Obama supporter and have been since Feb. of ’07,” Wicher said. “I really want him to win.”
But he also doesn’t want to lose his voice in the campaign. Undaunted, he snuck back into MyBO using another alias.
“I’m back now,” Wicher said. “There’s no way to stop me.”