Rick Warren and Change.gov: The Internet Giveth ... and Taketh Away

For online political operatives and observers this is a prime example of the truism that the medium can quickly flip from being an asset to a liability.
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If you get your political news online, it's hard to miss the controversy over Rick Warren's planned delivery of the Inaugural Invocation. The progressive community is outraged and one important venue where criticism is being voiced is the transition hub, Change.gov.

A quick glance at the discussion page yields numerous comments like these:

"I'm saddened to hear that Rick Warren will be involved in the official inauguration procedures. We've had eight years of policy made by the greedy, with injustice inflicted on the poor, ill and minorities and justified by right wing religious leaders who divide people into "us" and "them" to gain power and money. "Hope" to me means policy based on science and priorities on human rights and fairness. Warren opposed fair treatment for gays, and his views on abortion and stem cell research are scientifically absurd. We "reality based" Americans worked hard to elect President Obama because we can no longer afford this kind of divisive nonsense. Surely there is a religious leader available who is more in tune with reality and who doesn't use divisive positions that play one citizen off another to build big empires."

"Giving a voice to those who have different opinions IS important. However, Rick Warren is using his voice to take away the rights of others. I am a staunch supporter of women's rights, LGBT rights, and Mr. Obama, but this decision is making me wonder if those three aren't compatible. Is this a sign of things to come?"

"I am profoundly saddened and personally insulted, Mr. Obama, that you have chosen a representative of hate and devisiveness as a participant in your inauguration. The selection of Mr. Warren goes well beyond "reaching out to those who disagree". It represents an endorsement of bigotry, ignorance, and hatred."

"I am so disappointed in the choice of Rev. Warren. I cannot understand why the Obama team would try to justify this selection as an olive branch to conservatives and in the process alienate so many people who helped to put President-elect Obama in office. This is a sad day. This is a slap in the face to LGBT people and all of their supporters like me."

For online political operatives and observers this is a prime example of the truism that the medium can quickly flip from being an asset to a liability (which is a good thing from the perspective of citizen empowerment but often a headache for elected officials, campaigns and organizations).

A commonly referenced example of this is the FISA protest against the Obama campaign, described by Micah Sifry:

The online mini-rising to protest Barack Obama's support for the Congressional compromise to renew the FISA legislation has been getting a lot of attention, with much being made (by us and plenty of others, including Ari Melber in the Nation, The New York Times, et al) that activists are using Obama's own social networking platform, my.BarackObama.com, to organize and channel their efforts to get him to alter his stand. Indeed, as of today the Senator Obama - Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity - Get FISA Right group has swelled to more than 14,000 members, which makes it the single largest self-organized group on the whole platform, which reportedly has close to a million registered members.

This is certainly a good example of what thinkers like Clay Shirky and Mark Pesce have been talking about, when it comes to "ridiculously easy group formation" (qua Shirky) and how "Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment" (qua Pesce). But right now the main reason this development is important is NOT because the group itself is that powerful; it's because attention-amplifiers in the blogosphere and the MSM are covering the story and thus threatening some of Obama's hard-won image as a change agent, which could conceivably weaken his vaunted fundraising and organizing machine. So while the Obama campaign is keeping a poker face about the importance of some of its members using the master's tools to challenge his position, it is no doubt paying attention, too.

Although the FISA episode is cited more often than other similar instances, the fact is that managing an Internet program for a campaign or organization is a constant balancing act between the need for message control and the laudable aims of openness and transparency. (I should add that message control and openness are not always in opposition -- but it would be naïve to think that they are always harmonious.)

At the Clinton campaign, my experience with the problem was the huge influx of 'trolls' at HillaryClinton.com in early 2007, a unique challenge that greatly hampered our site-based social-networking capacity -- since we had to moderate the budding community extremely tightly to prohibit offensive content and to prevent the overly scrutinous media from using a stray comment to tarnish Hillary. For example, a death threat against Hillary that showed up on the Obama website received scant press attention. The Obama team deleted it, the Secret Service was notified, and that was the end of it, correctly so. Now imagine the reverse; it's safe to say it would have erupted into a larger story.

Which brings me back to the incredible challenge faced by Obama's Internet team. Not only are they confronted with what I think is an impossible task of maintaining the online momentum generated during the campaign, but now they have to deal with the transition website becoming a sudden rallying point for critics. It speaks well that they aren't using a heavy hand to moderate the outrage on the site. It's also encouraging that across the web, activists see Change.gov as a place to express their views. Bloggers have been sending readers there to tell the transition team how they feel about Warren's selection.

For me, this is the raw power of the medium, the ability to communicate and aggregate at will, massively and instantaneously. It's not the YouTube addresses and the capacity to ask questions and receive boilerplate policy answers that will mark Obama's as the first truly wired presidency, it's the freedom to speak out on a global scale, both in support of -- and in opposition to -- the incoming administration. Kudos to Obama's team for providing an official platform for that to happen.

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