Thursday, 16 October 2008 09:38

Flaming for Obama

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I’ve spent much of the last year on the front line of one of the most contentious presidential nomination contests in memory—without moving from my London desk. I have been part of something historic: the first great political battle to take place in cyberspace.

For many in Britain, blogging, especially political blogging, is a bit of a disappointment. Many of our political sites are tacked on to party websites, or are simply online versions of established media outlets. They tend to be either controlled, conformist and rather dull, or unmoderated rants, the kind of online graffiti rightly parodied by Private Eye.

The US offers a glimpse of something different—how the internet can transform news and opinion. It is ten years since the Drudge Report broke the Lewinsky scandal. These days, American sites like Talking Points Memo, Politico and (as Andrew Keen described in the August issue of Prospect) the Huffington Post regularly scoop the conventional media by hours, or even days.

But what is happening now is more profound than a digital acceleration of the news cycle. The social networking craze best known through websites such as Facebook and MySpace has spilled over into politics, giving birth to an online form of grassroots activism, which includes campaigning, fundraising and advocacy—a movement known in the US as the “netroots”—some of it linked to mainstream parties (and their factions) some of it independent. Although Republicans are active in this area too—many attribute Bush’s 2004 victory to an email database that activated right-wing votes—it is with the liberal/progressive netroots that the political blogosphere has come of age.

By 2007, the annual Netroots Nation conference had become such a key event in the Democratic calendar that it was attended by all the presidential candidates (bar Joe Biden). When the scandal of John Edwards’s affair erupted a couple of months ago, it was on the most visited progressive site, Daily Kos, that Edwards’s wife Elizabeth released her public statement in response, and then replied to comments from some of the site’s 100,000 active members. More practically, congressional candidates regularly contribute to netroots sites to argue their cases, rally support and, most importantly, raise money.

The seeds of this can be traced back to 1998, when moveon.org was formed in response to Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. In their first decade, the progressive netroots have focused on activism and single issues: getting out the vote (especially in swing states), raising money for favoured candidates and opposing the Iraq war. The first major electoral impact came in 2006, with the drafting of two Senate candidates: Jim Webb, who displaced the incumbent Virginia Republican George Allen thanks partly to a viral video promoted on the blogosphere showing Allen making racist remarks, and Howard Lamont, who defeated Joe Lieberman in a Connecticut primary.

Given the demographics of early internet use, this new digital constituency was largely liberal, educated, opinionated and quick to pull out the credit card. Howard Dean was the first presidential candidate to recognise the potential; his 2004 bid was centred on using the web to galvanise Democrats and create new coalitions, even in states long considered lost to the Republicans. But it was the Obama campaign that really capitalised on the phenomenon, deploying it to key advantage in Obama’s shock primary wins in January and February 2008. Money was a big part of it. Instead of relying on large donors and fundraising dinners, my.barackobama.com gathered 2m small contributors who could donate small amounts on the website again and again without breaching their $2,500 contribution cap. As a result, Obama consistently outraised Hillary Clinton, despite lacking her media profile and traditional Democratic donor base.

Television and radio coverage—”airwave supremacy”—has been the key to a successful presidential campaign ever since the Nixon/Kennedy clash in 1960. But in politics, just as in other fields, the internet has changed the way professionals communicate with the public, and the way the public communicates with itself. In the years ahead, many of the biggest political conflicts will be fought in cyberspace. And what we saw in the Democratic primaries this year was the fiercest sort of battle there is: a civil war.

I first immersed myself in the liberal blogosphere during John Kerry’s bid to unseat Bush in 2004, mainly through my fascination for polls, opinions and analysis. The slow death of local Labour party activism in Britain had left me with an unsatisfied craving for political dispute. There were also personal reasons: my partner then had been a White House Fellow during 9/11, I had lived in a number of US cities and was a member of several transatlantic groups.

During the 2008 campaign, I found breaking news more quickly on the netroots sites than I could on CNN, and analysis better than anything in the New York Times or the Washington Post. By following sites like fivethirtyeight.com and OpenLeft, it became clear to me after “super Tuesday” in early February that the underlying mathematics of the primaries meant Obama was likely to become the Democratic candidate—no matter how much the media dressed up the campaign as a close-fought race with Hillary.

However, in the end it wasn’t the analysis that hooked me, it was the polemic. I became addicted to websites like Daily Kos or MyDD (short for My Due Diligence), where one could get stuck in to detailed and fiery political argument. MyDD—which Daily Kos credits as its “blogfather”—was founded in 2001 by Jerome Armstrong, a 37-year-old former environmental activist, as a wonkish, mainly pro-Howard Dean blog. A year later, one of Armstrong’s writers, a former Republican called Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, left to set up Daily Kos. Armstrong and Zuniga apparently remained friends, and in 2006, as the patriarchs of the liberal blogosphere, co-authored the key book on the movement, Crashing the Gate. This argued that the bottom-up approach of the netroots was the only way out of the fractious and lobbyist-heavy impasse of Democratic politics. The old rainbow coalition had fragmented into a myriad of special interest groups, often at odds with each other. This lack of coherence turned candidates into easy prey for paid lobbyists and pressure groups, encouraging the notorious legislative gridlock of Washington.

On first view, websites like Daily Kos and MyDD may look like simple news providers, but underneath they are powered by a specific community and its democratic preferences. Soon after joining, you can write your own piece, or “diary.” With enough interest from other users, your diary can rise quickly up the recommended list or “rec list” until you are ushered on to the front page. In their comments, other readers can annotate and correct your piece, provide new links and background, “flame” you with insults, heap you with praise or just crack a joke. These comments are themselves subject to voting. The more votes you acquire the more privileges you get—a privileged user can, for example, hide the abusive or unsubstantiated comments they receive from others. Becoming a member of these sites is like joining the editorial board of an interactive newspaper or, with the increased popularity of embedded YouTube videos, the news team of a television network.

A few years ago, the idea that an open-source system could generate reliable content was not taken that seriously. But look at Wikipedia now. It may still have doubters, but it is increasingly regarded as a valid work of reference. The same is becoming true in the political blogosphere. Providing these sites are well moderated, most unsourced rumours and poorly argued rants get weeded out, and quality flourishes. You have to sift and filter, helped by other users, but at their best these sites can achieve a depth and speed of political coverage you cannot find anywhere else. For example, within minutes of Sarah Palin’s appointment as John McCain’s running mate in late August, bloggers were providing a more thorough “vetting” of her background than the Republican party, and the mainstream media were following their lead.

***

By the 2008 primaries, the influence of the netroots had become apparent. John Edwards was briefly the darling of the movement. But after Obama’s “yes we can” speech in New Hampshire, a split emerged—one which was to characterise the rest of the primary campaign. Kos became the base for enthusiastic—sometimes overenthusiastic—Obama support. And when Edwards dropped out at the end of January, the rush to Obama became a flood. Tensions rose, especially between the generations. Hillary supporters found themselves an unwelcome minority on Daily Kos, and their comments and diaries were full of attacks on Obama, whose supporters they called “juvenile Obamabots.” Because of its predominantly orange design, Daily Kos became known as the “Big Orange Satan” by Hillary supporters.

Led by a prolific diarist known as Alegre, several Clintonistas announced a writers’ “strike” on Daily Kos and migrated to MyDD, where Jerome Armstrong, who had long been an Obama sceptic, finally became a vocal supporter of Hillary’s. This surprised many, especially since key figures in Hillary’s campaign, like Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe, seemed to stand for exactly the old politics that Crashing the Gate rejected. But in a hotly contested two-horse race, it made little political or commercial sense to have two pro-Obama blogs. As traffic hotted up during the protracted campaign, Markos and Jerome were each carving out their own domains in the blogosphere.

My involvement in the 2008 campaign became personal when a good friend was appointed a senior policy adviser to the Obama campaign. I followed the netroots sites closely, and in March, when Clinton’s campaign began its “kitchen sink offensive,” I began to post diaries. For a writer in search of an audience, a site like Daily Kos—with over 100,000 active members and more than 20m page views a week—was a big draw. The effect was addictive. When a diary I wrote about Hillary’s false recollections of Tuzla in 1996—in which I believe I coined the phrase “Snipergate”—got to the top of the rec list, I felt like Woodward or Bernstein.

But although I was a firm Obama supporter, I soon began to find Daily Kos a bit boring, an echo chamber rather than a place for debate. I wanted to be on the front line, and soon the Clintonista MyDD was my most visited website. I found a site dominated by “gates”: Naftagate, Monstergate and Bittergate, but above all Wrightgate—the tarring of Obama with the inflammatory sermons of his preacher Jeremiah Wright. The MyDD rec list became a compilation of the worst smears and innuendoes about Obama, led by the former veteran of Daily Kos, or “Kossack,” Alegre, and supported by other female diarists such as Texas Darlin or Linfar.

I relished these flame wars. They sharpened my polemical skills: soon I was picking off weak arguments and logical fallacies, and applying “Godwin’s law,” which states that in any debate, whoever invokes Hitler first loses the argument. This was useful during the row over whether Michigan and Florida’s disbarred votes should in fact be counted.

There is, of course, an intrinsic problem with online advocacy, especially when contributors hide behind sobriquets or “handles.” Hurriedly typed text lacks tone and context, and it’s easy to take offence where none is intended. This became all the more divisive during the primary wars because they tapped back into the identity politics that had been so potent in the last century. With two exceptional candidates—one female, one black—with very similar policy platforms, the arguments quickly became personal. Many contributors assumed that anyone who disagreed with them was either racist or sexist, depending on which candidate they backed. On progressive websites, these accusations, even when only implied, were explosive.

The battles soon fell into a familiar pattern. A lead diarist would find some new Obama gaffe or link to a news story, often on a right-wing site like Fox News. The diary would be recommended by the diarist’s fans. Obama supporters would gather round to try to take the diarist down, only to be blocked by the majority Clintonista members. Sometimes the allegations were completely ridiculous: “Sweetiegate,” for instance, when Obama was accused of misogyny for calling a reporter “sweetie,” or “Fingergate,” where an odd-angled snapshot made it appear as if he were giving Hillary the finger.

By late April, with the primaries heading into Obama-unfriendly Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the home of what Hillary called “hard-working… white Americans”—it seemed as if the Democratic party was ruining its best shot at the presidency for years, reverting to its famed role as a “circular firing squad.” Some more senior Obama supporters started trying to rebuild the burnt bridges to Hillary fans. In turn, some of her best advocates returned the compliment. For a moment it looked as if the flame wars were about to fizzle out. But there turned out to be a third party with an interest in keeping them burning.

***

Ever since online bulletin boards took off in the 1990s, there have been users whose sole aim is to disrupt the online conversation. These so-called “trolls” sow dissent, confusion and misunderstanding. In the 2008 presidential campaign, the relatively early nomination of John McCain presented Republican trolls with the perfect opportunity to attack the Democrats. In February, with Obama apparently on course for victory, the right-wing “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos,” urging Republicans to register as Democrats and vote for Hillary in order to deepen the rancour in Democratic ranks. Meanwhile, McCain’s team encouraged supporters to fight for their nominee online. Republican trolls arrived at MyDD aiming to fan hostility between the Democratic rivals. Sometimes they would pose as extreme Obama supporters, and tarnish both him and the Clintons by resurrecting some of the nastier smears on Bill and Hillary from the 1990s. But more often they pretended to be Hillary supporters, claiming that “Barack Hussein Obama” was a corrupt, anti-American black separatist.

Troll-hunters sprang up in response, looking for signs of right-wing agitation, like quotes from Fox News. Others were better at weeding out trolls than I was, but I still notched up a few scalps. Some couldn’t resist telling me what they were up to, which of course was completely stupid, saying things like, “We’ll be back in four months’ time. Then we’ll really have some fun!” And I did get “Universal,” the bane of all Obama supporters, to all but confess that he was a troll. He’d written an absurd diary on “Professorgate”: the charge that Obama’s résumé falsely claimed he had been a Chicago law professor. I suggested that Universal was playing a clever game: deliberately causing dissension to increase MyDD’s page hits and advertising revenues. Flattered, he said I was right about his tactics, just wrong about his motives. The next day he was outed as a Republican and banned from MyDD forever.

Republican trolls often had multiple accounts, recommending their own diaries and rating their own comments. Democrats of both persuasions occasionally formed joint patrols to hunt them down. We would meet their provocative comments simply by posting long recipes, or “Don’t feed the troll” signs, or pictures of cats in various absurd positions (so-called “lolcats”) or even photographs of comic slapstick errors with the word FAIL in bold letters.

It may seem puerile, but by then the primaries themselves had descended into farce—partly because the old “made for television” politics no longer worked in the digital age. This is something Armstrong foresaw in Crashing the Gate, arguing that the old Karl Rove-Dick Morris days of mass media campaigns were over. The Clintonite tactic of triangulation wouldn’t play in the internet age. Saying one thing to one electorate and another thing to another was viable in an age of local radio, television and newspapers. But with Google and YouTube, where every archived interview and campaign speech is just a click away, the contradictions could be burrowed out, held up and shown to be cynical and manipulative.

***

The paradox of the netroots is that for all their bottom-up inclusiveness, these sites are run by sole proprietors—Armstrong on the pro-Hillary MyDD, Markos on the Obama backing Daily Kos—the rock stars of the liberal blogosphere. The economics of the web means that clickthrough ad revenue, driven by visitor numbers, is the main source of funding. (Based on a rough estimate of traffic and Google ad rates, Daily Kos could be earning almost $1m a year through advertising.) As with early rock stars, the balance between driving up commercial success and retaining authenticity is proving hard to pull off.

The result is an uneasy mix of democratic collectivism and Rupert Murdoch-style autocracy. In April, I became a direct victim of this tension in the furore over Obama’s remarks at a private fundraiser in San Francisco about voters who “cling to guns or religion.” Seeing a new front opening, Hillary’s campaign launched the classic Nixonian attack: Obama was an elitist. Blog posts were fired off almost minute by minute. Obama diarists now said that MyDD stood for “My Dixiecrat“—a reference to the old racist southern Democrats. A diary by the truculent journalist Bob Johnson, “MyDD—the Cesspool of Hate,” actually reached the top of the MyDD rec list.

The Obamabots seemed to be winning the argument. But then came what I call the Battle of Bob Johnson Bridge. Johnson wrote a diary on MyDD suggesting that Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote, a Democratic organisation with a lot of Hillary backers, might be colluding in voter suppression prior to the North Carolina primary—tactics designed to reduce the turnout for Obama supporters. The diary was contentious but sourced, and I recommended it. Hours later, the diary suddenly disappeared from the rec list, and those who had recommended it had their posting and commenting privileges removed. In response, I wrote one of my first diaries on MyDD, asking if censorship was taking place, and whether this violated the community principles of netroots. Within minutes, I noticed the tags “whiny meta-diary” had been added to my post. I tried to correct them, but could no longer log on. I’d been banished from MyDD.

Armstrong’s mass cullings of pro-Obama contributors were commercially smart. MyDD had greatly increased its traffic since it became the front line of the primary wars. By suspending Obamabots, Armstrong ensured the Clintonistas still dominated, while hanging on to his more passive Obama-supporting readers who wanted to follow the story. But such heavy-handed actions raise uncomfortable questions for a movement whose credibility rests on its open, grassroots approach to democracy.

***

By early June, Obama’s drip-drip of superdelegates and endorsements had become a rush. Under a new samizdat sobriquet (or what is known as a “sockpuppet”) I wrote a pro-Clinton diary on MyDD saying that although Hillary had lost the nomination, she had broken the glass ceiling and taken over the Clinton brand from Bill. This had an unexpected effect. Arianna Huffington cited my diary in a front page piece on the Huffington Post, and MyDD gave me my privileges back.

The next few weeks were probably the most extraordinary of the whole campaign. Although there were still flare-ups, both sides sought reconciliation. Thanks to the Clintonistas, I learned Postel’s law—the most important lesson of all when it comes to debate with online strangers. Devised by one of the founders of the internet, Postel’s law is a rule of systems communication which also applies in debate: “be conservative about what you send, and liberal about what you receive.” Write with discipline, listen with tolerance. It’s a good rule for bloggers.

Of course, it wasn’t all happy endings after Hillary conceded. MyDD’s headline diarists disappeared and set up their own minority sites. Alegre tried to form a pro-Hillary putsch of delegates at the Denver Democratic convention. Texas Darlin, having offered a $1m reward for a mythical tape of Michelle Obama using the word ‘”whitey,” is now pushing some theory about Obama having a fake birth certificate. Some dead-enders formed a group called Puma (Party Unity My Ass) vowing to vote for McCain so that Hillary can run in 2012.

In just a few years, the netroots have shown how a myriad of single-issue causes can coalesce and play a pivotal role in the Democratic primaries. In the future, with the decline of the traditional political party branch meeting, union meeting or fundraising event, it could be the model for new forms of engagement. Watch this (virtual) space.

There is nothing in Britain that replicates the passion and activism of these sites. The nearest equivalent is ConservativeHome—and perhaps it is no surprise that an opposition party latches on to this alternative form of communication. I still wait for real signs of a popular centre-left blog in Britain. (If you want to start one up, let me know.)

In the meantime, some flaming occasionally flares on Daily Kos, led mainly by so-called purity trolls disappointed at Obama’s shift to the centre. MyDD has fewer diaries, and the comments are less rapid and intense. But another round of Republican trolls has moved into this vacuum (they came back in the summer just as they promised), and as a result a joint band of Obamaites and Clintonistas have had enough. They’re forming a new progressive blog called Motley Moose to provide a troll-free and properly moderated site in which to roam—and they want me to join them!

After the party conventions, the ad hominems are flying again. Is Sarah Palin a legitimate target of attack, or a victim of sexism? Ouch. I’ve just had my first flame. We’re arguing, cracking jokes, posting videos… back in the thick of it.

 

Click here to discuss this piece at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog

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