Supporters Use Obama's Social Network Against Him

A group of more than 20,000 supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama have used his official social network to organize an online protest against his stance on legislation set to be taken up by the U.S. Senate tomorrow.

The users of the social network MyBarackObama.com have organized a grass-roots protest online that opposes Obama's support of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act. The act would continue the controversial surveillance of e-mail and phone calls by the U.S. National Security Agency that started after Sept. 11, 2001, and would likely end lawsuits against the telecommunications carriers that participated in the program. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the legislation last month.

Jeff Jarvis, a blogger and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York, noted in a blog post that the protest could mark an important moment in "participatory, self-organized online politics," especially since Obama's campaign has built itself on the support of various grass-roots efforts.

"When it's a grassroots organization that makes you -- rather than a party -- and you say you're beholden to them not to special interests and big money and lobbyists, well, then you really are beholden to them," Jarvis noted. "If they rise up from within to tell you that they don't like what you're doing -- when they use your own organizational tools to do that -- then I'd say you ignore them at your peril. Live by the crowd, die by the crowd."

Jarvis added that it will be interesting to see what type of power these self-organized groups wield if Obama ascends to the White House.

"Will his supporters at MyBarackObama continue to use these tools to influence him and government? And will he have to listen because he is beholden to them?" Jarvis asked.

Obama's campaign did not respond today to a request for comment on the online protest. However, the senator said in a blog post Thursday that the ability to monitor individuals who want to attack the U.S. is a "vital counter-terrorism tool" and that he believes it is necessary to keep Americans safe.

"The truth is that your organizing, your activism and your passion is an important reason why this bill is better than previous versions," Obama wrote. "No tool has been more important in focusing peoples' attention on the abuses of executive power in this Administration than the active and sustained engagement of American citizens."

Obama went on to note that "when citizens join their voices together, they can hold their leaders accountable. I'm not exempt from that. ... I cannot promise to agree with you on every issue. But I do promise to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn your ongoing support to change the country."

Patrick Ruffini, a blogger at TechPresident, noted that the online protest is a natural evolution in any open networked system that operates in the political space.

"It's now a truism that when presented with an open platform, users will hack it to serve their purposes, not necessarily those of the sponsor," Ruffini said. "Many times, those two sets of priorities are intertwined (e.g. supporters' desire to get involved matched with a campaign's need for volunteers), though in this case, they weren't."

If the campaign censored the group, it would endanger the financial support and volunteers that the online push has helped to generate, he noted.

"Also, I suspect if you asked them privately, they'll say they love that this is happening," Ruffini added. "Why? Because the controversy and meta-coverage drives more people to use the tools."

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