In the early afternoon two weeks ago today, Mardi, a Barack Obama supporter logged into the Obama campaign's social networking application and created the group "Senator Obama - Please Vote against FISA" to protest Obama's stance on the FISA bill that was under consideration in Congress. She had no idea that she would become the founder of a movement. By that evening, Mardi's group had 300 members. In one week, the group boasted more than 17,000 members, the largest group on the Obama website. Today, the day of the Senate vote on the bill, the group has nearly 24,000 members and is still growing.
The last two weeks have been a whirlwind for members and especially the people who volunteered to handle administrative and leadership tasks, all of whom were strangers to one another before the group's creation. Almost immediately, Mardi realized she would not be able to keep up with the group's expanding administrative tasks. She recruited additional administrators from within the group. Perfect strangers began coordinating a campaign for thousands of people to protest the FISA bill.
Once the group reached several thousand members, it was generating hundreds of emails every day. By the end of the first week, email had exploded, creating chaos. I joined the group at the one week mark and was bombarded for hours, mostly by anti-Obama emails. I wrote this opinion piece in response, making my case that the group needed to repurpose to defeat FISA rather than bashing our presidential nominee.
In fact, those who wanted to withdraw support for Obama turned out to be an extremely small (but vocal) minority within the group. The group, however, still struggled to develop its position, goals, and course of actions.
Because of the incredible demands on the volunteer leadership, the administrators and moderators formed a parallel email group, which now includes 36 very active members. Email moderators were organized in round-the-clock shifts for the main group to help members with technical issues and keep the list (somewhat) sane. Even so, the email group still generates several hundred emails every day.
The group leaders, all volunteers, come from all walks of life and have varied backgrounds in political activism. Two have professional community organizing experience. One has worked in public relations. Several are social science researchers. A handful are techies. Members of the leadership group range from political novices to long-time political activists. In addition to communicating through the original extended "Vote Against FISA" and leadership email groups, the group leaders also have almost-daily conference calls, a chat server that is active nearly 24 hours a day, a wiki for information sharing, Google docs to collaborate, and more. The group is recruiting new members every day through a Twitter, Facebook and other networking tools.
One of the group leaders reflects on techPresident that the group has been successful largely because the transaction costs of organizing on the web have been lowered by the many open source and free tools available for collaboration and communication.
In fact, as was reported widely, the group was so successful that it drew a direct response from Obama. No other presidential candidate has responded to a group of protest by supporters in such a way. Although the group was disappointed that Obama did not change his stance on the FISA bill, the vast majority of group members were astounded and pleased that Obama chose to open a dialog with them. Obama posted his response to the group on the Obama campaign blog and assigned three high-level policy staffers available to answer questions, live on the blog, for nearly two hours.
The group quickly drafted their own response to Obama and posted it on several blogs and delivered it to the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago and to the Obama senate office in D.C.
Today, the Senate voted to pass the FISA bill, including Title II, which grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that illegally handed over private customer data to the Bush administration without the warrants required by law.
The Vote Against FISA group has vowed to continue fighting for reform on the matter. The group completed an open letter to Senator Obama by the time the vote was wrapped up in the Senate and is demanding accountability (after all, Obama continues to say that he wants his supporters to hold him accountable) if and when Obama moves into the White House. The open letter expresses continued support for Obama's presidential candidacy and asks him to go further in his promise to the American people:
Senator Obama, you told us last Thursday that you would have your "Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and ... make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future." You need to go further. When you are president, use your powers to expose the truth. A full investigation of Bush's so-called "terrorist surveillance program" needs to be conducted by your administration, not just the Bush administration. Legal opinions that try to justify spying on the phone calls and emails of Americans without warrants need to be released so they can be publically debated and discredited. Finally, you need to revisit this flawed bill as president. It is anything but a compromise. As Republican Senator Kit Bond said, "the White House got a better deal than they even had hoped to get."
Members of the group are vowing not just to fight on, but to organize in a way that was impossible to do during the last frenzied two weeks. Members are retooling, creating a central website with more robust tools so that the large number of members can better communicate without hundreds of emails clogging their inboxes.
Obama asked his supporters to get involved in the issues, to hold politicians accountable, and to work for the changes they want to see. This group, which organized around the FISA bill, may be only the first instance of the kind of activism and political participation that Obama has asked us to envision -- at least I hope so.