In this current age of online politics and the emergence of You Tube campaigning, the lessons from last week’s Obama-MySpace controversy should send a strong message to all of the other campaigns who are trying to use the internet as a powerful tool this election season.
For a campaign that prides itself on a new type of open politics and grassroots supporters, Barack Obama’s presidential team made a serious mistake in alienating Joe Anthony, a once-powerful member of its online community.
As a recap, in this new era of online campaigning, social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace have taken on an added importance in empowering predominantly young people to join a political cause. For instance, Facebook, which allows its users a chance to create and join groups for any purpose, has numerous campaign groups for all of the major candidates in both the Republican and the Democratic races. Supporters using the website can join these groups, communicate with each other, plan events etc. to support their candidates. MySpace, a site similar to Facebook, also lets people set up pages for candidates, issues or ideas that they support also.
Before Barack Obama was even inaugurated as the junior Senator from Illinois, Joe Anthony set up such a MySpace group in support of the Senator-elect. According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, “Anthony is the 29-year old Los Angeles paralegal who in November 2004 launched an Obama page on MySpace, the social networking site, attracting 160,000 ‘friends.’”
With so many ‘friends’-- who could possibly be used as volunteers or donors for the campaign-- signed up for this page, Anthony’s assistance was obviously a great asset to Obama’s presidential campaign. One can only imagine the cost of obtaining such a list without the help of MySpace and Mr. Anthony’s support. With Anthony’s hard work in setting up and updating the site, that list was provided virtually free for the Obama campaign.
In appreciation for the MySpace publicity, Obama’s campaign provided some official campaign material for inclusion on the site working in conjunction with Anthony. However, the Times article continued, the Obama campaign officially took over the website last week “replacing his [Anthony’s] content with official information from the campaign and leaving in the wake a dispute over whether Anthony was fairly treated…” which led to Anthony’s recent online post of the following: "Regardless of the campaign's intentions, the campaign quashed not only my right to have this profile, but the very hope that inspired me to build it.''
For Obama’s campaign to alienate such a young and vibrant supporter shows a great deal about how that campaign treats some of the young supporters it cultivates and how other candidates should not be treating their followers. Instead of working with and embracing the strides that Anthony made for the campaign, that campaign chose the easier option of a hostile takeover of his page. The Obama campaign had previously worked with the site but the campaign decided that it controlling the entire site and cutting Joe Anthony out of the situation was a better option.
This whole story is especially damaging considering that one of the main themes of Obama’s rhetoric is getting people civically-engaged and working together towards a better future for our country. How can he continue to talk about such high ideals when his campaign is seeking complete control over other people’s hard work? How can he continue to preach for people to work together to make our nation even greater when a young person such as Anthony is punished for putting together a database of over 160,000 supporters? Shouldn’t Anthony be praised for building a grassroots support network?
This situation speaks volumes about the level of control the Obama campaign is trying to maintain over the online world. Obama’s high rhetoric is something to be admired for such a young and vibrant politician and he brings a great enthusiasm to the national stage that is missing from the other Democratic presidential candidates. However, his campaign’s actions have spoken loudly over his words and made them meaningless in practice.
From a political standpoint, I can understand the goals of Obama’s campaign in taking control of this website. Obviously, the campaign wants to present a unified message to the public and maintain maximum control over the campaign message. In addition to that, Obama’s campaign wanted to prevent a regular online user from building up a database of supporters and a level of credibility only to betray the campaign at a crucial moment and take sides with another candidate. (Imagine perhaps if Anthony switched campaigns in late January of next year. Losing his support and the support of some of those hundreds of thousands of his ‘friends’ could be a critical blow.)
However, the way that Senator Obama’s campaign handled this situation leaves a lot to be desired. The campaign could have worked in conjunction with Anthony’s website as accounts say that it had been doing before it decided to take over. Obama’s team could have hired Anthony as an advisor and brought such a critical ally into the political fold (as campaigns have done previously in appreciation of a supporter’s hard work). Or the Obama camp could have negotiated with Anthony in a respectful manner in order to take more control over the site than they previously had.
The campaign did none of those things and now they are left with a negative story that tarnishes the Senator’s image and a once ardent supporter is now on the fence (even after receiving a personal call from Obama himself about this). A $400 haircut from a millionaire lawyer who spends his days talking about alleviating poverty seems tame compared to this.
In this new age where private citizens are given the power to create databases of supporters for political campaigns, politicians and their staffers should realize that the internet works two ways. It can be a great asset to your campaign or a great liability. Obama’s campaign should have realized that before they turned a key supporter into a possible liability.
Hopefully other campaigns have heard about this story and hear that message loud and clear.