Ari Melber | The Nation

Ari Melber

Ari Melber

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Patent Offers Clues on How Google Controls the News

Google’s move to order results based on what’s newest and most liked has made it a journalistic behemoth nearly overnight. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.)

News may not be very profitable anymore, but it sure is popular.

Consider this: About half a million people pay for digital subscriptions to The New York Times, one of the few newspapers that commands a paid following online. Meanwhile, Google News, which curates primarily free content, draws 1 billion different readers every week. That is over 4,000 times the online subscriber base of the Gray Lady.

The comparison is unfair, of course, but so are the economics of journalism. Google pulls articles from 50,000 sources, processes them through a patented computer algorithm—no editors!—and then gives Googlers what it thinks they want. Back in the day, the search industry began with a focus on authority—the most reliable stuff comes on the first page of results. However, it is moving towards the alternative values of social (what your friends like), and speed (what’s new, or news). For example, type “Obama” or American Idol into Google, and the top of the page shows the Google News results—nabbing the prime real estate above the “first” traditional results, (which are links to the Obama and Idol official pages). This is a subtle but seismic shift for Google, which has walked through a side door to become one of the most important forces in journalism.

And yet, in a news environment where allegations of bias are a constant and “media” stories get their own vertical on The Huffington Post, the power and premises of Google News draw far less attention (outside of the tech press). So a look at revisions to Google’s patent for news can be instructive.

ComputerWorld just dug up Google’s application for revising its news algorithm, from last year, and analyzed what the company’s approach says about the future of news:

The…application offers details on more than a dozen separate metrics the company uses to rank news stories created by other Websites…. Google’s decisions…affect what stories readers see, potentially shaping their view of news events. The metrics cited in the patent application include: the number of articles produced by a news organization during a given time period; the average length of an article from a news source; and the importance of coverage from the news source, [as well as] a breaking news score, usage patterns, human opinion, circulation statistics and the size of the staff associated with a particular news operation.

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While Google’s approach—and the premise of many new media defenders—often rewards aggregated, flashy content over the original reporting that it cannibalizes, the patent application includes a detailed metric aiming to value original research and sources.

A tenth metric may include a value representing the number of original named entities the news source produces within a cluster of related articles…[this is worthwhile because] if a news source generates a news story that contains a named entity that other articles [on the same topic] do not contain, this may be an indication that the news source is capable of original reporting (emphasis added).

The weighting of the different metrics is not provided, since Google closely guards its algorithm, so there’s no way to know if this “original named entities” formula actually counts for much (or whether it works). According to the application, other metrics also aim to reflect whether readers, and other websites, have assigned value to a given article, possible because it is original or high quality. So even an obscure or unaccredited news page could earn Google’s valuable blessing if other sources were linking to it. On that score, Google’s best defense has always been offense—if you don’t like the top hits, don’t blame them, blame the web.

Facebook Graph Search is a cutting-edge way to find people, for good or ill, Ari Melber writes.

Why Graph Search Could Be Facebook's Largest Privacy Invasion Ever

Here is one iron law of the Internet: a social network’s emphasis on monetizing its product is directly proportional to its users’ loss of privacy.

At one extreme there are networks like Craigslist and Wikipedia, which pursue relatively few profits and enable nearly absolute anonymity and privacy. At the other end of the spectrum is Facebook, a $68 billion company that is constantly seeking ways to monetize its users and their personal data.

Facebook’s latest program, Graph Search, may be the company’s largest privacy infraction ever.

Facebook announced Graph Search in mid-January, but it has not officially launched. According to company materials and some independent reports, however, the program cracks open Facebook’s warehouse of personal information to allow searching and data-mining on a large portion of Facebook’s 1 billion users. Users who set their profiles to “public” are about to be exposed to their largest audience ever.

Facebook sees this as the future. In a video announcing the program, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and CEO, touts Graph Search as one of three core pillars of “the Facebook ecosystem.”

The financial incentives are clear. Google, which is triple the size of Facebook, makes most of its revenue through search ads. So while the companies host the two most-visited sites in America, Google squeezes more money out of users in less time. Search provides a way for Facebook to sell more to its active users and, of course, to sell its users to others. That’s where Tom Scott comes in.

Scott, a 28-year-old British programmer, prankster and former political candidate—he ran on a “Pirate” platform of scrapping rum taxes—has launched his own prebuttal to Graph Search. His new blog, “Actual Facebook Graph Searches,” uses a beta-test version of the feature to show its dark side.

With a few clicks, Scott shows how Graph Search provides real names, and other identifying information, for all kinds of problematic combinations, from the embarrassing and hypocritical to ready-made Enemies Lists for repressive regimes. His searches include Catholic mothers in Italy who have stated a preference for Durex condoms and, more ominously, Chinese residents who have family members that like Falun Gong. (He removed all real names, but soon anyone can run these searches.)

“Graph Search jokes are a good way of startling people into checking their privacy settings,” says Scott, who was randomly included in a test sample for early access to the program. “I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy,” he told The Nation. That may have helped make Scott’s lighthearted effort so effective.

Within a few days after launching, Scott’s blog went, yes, viral. He says it has drawn over a quarter-million visitors, thanks to a wide range of web attention, and it has stoked more scrutiny of Facebook.

Mathew Ingram, a technology writer and founder of the digital mesh conference, argues that Scott’s search results gesture at a value beyond traditional “privacy.” Some pragmatists and Facebook defenders stress that the information in these search results was already surrendered by the users, so we should criticize them, not the technology. (You know, Facebook doesn’t kill privacy, people do.) But Ingram rebuts this reasoning by invoking a paradigm from philosopher Evan Selinger, who argues that these questions actually turn on the assumptions and boundaries of digital obscurity.

“Being invisible to search engines increases obscurity,” writes Selinger. “So does using privacy settings and pseudonyms, [and] since few online disclosures are truly confidential or highly publicized, the lion’s share of communication on the social web falls along the expansive continuum of obscurity: a range that runs from completely hidden to totally obvious.”

Facebook’s search engine is another step in its long pattern of promising a “safe and trusted environment” for empowered sharing — Zuckerberg’s words — while cracking open that Safe Space for the highest bidder. So the access and context of that space is crucial. After all, many people would consent to sharing several individual pieces of personal information separately, while balking at releasing a dossier of all that same information together. The distinction turns more on the principles of obscurity and access than binary privacy—a concept that has faded as social networks proliferated—and even draws support from the literature on intelligence and espionage.

The CIA, for example, has long subscribed to the Mosaic Theory for intelligence gathering. The idea is that while seemingly innocuous pieces of information have no value when viewed independently, when taken together they can form a significant, holistic piece of intelligence. The Navy once explained the idea in a statement on government secrecy that, when you think about it, could apply to your Facebook profile: Sometimes “apparently harmless pieces of information, when assembled together, could reveal a damaging picture.”

Facebook’s incentives are, almost always, to keep assembling the information and revealing that picture.


UPDATE: Philosophy professor Evan Selinger responds to this article on Twitter:

"Obscurity: A Better Way to Think About Your Data Than 'Privacy,'" Selinger's essay co-authored with Woodrow Hartzog, is here.

For Kerry's Seat, Party Activists Push Barney Frank Online

Barney Frank with senators Nancy Pelosi, right, and Steny Hoyer, left, in 2008. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta.)

Governor Deval Patrick is deciding who will be the next senator from Massachusetts, assuming that John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state. No one else has any official say in the decision, but many liberal activists are betting they can push Patrick online.

Over 32,000 people have now backed a petition urging Patrick to nominate Barney Frank, the recently retired liberal firebrand, as a temporary replacement. The effort is organized by the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, which also made a large early push for Elizabeth Warren, recruiting about 339,000 small donors for the professor-turned-pol.

“Our email to our members came from someone who fought really hard in Massachusetts for Warren,” said PCCC spokesman Neil Sroka, referring to Wellesley resident Cynthia Curtis. These activists want to ensure "they have a partner in the Senate over the next few months of crucial fights,” Sroka told The Nation, stressing that the net campaign had political power because it was comprised of “the very folks that worked their heart out to elect Elizabeth Warren.”

Is this actually an effective way to push an incumbent governor, who can pick any loyalist he wants?

Patrick has been walking a careful line, praising the online activism while saying that it has no actual impact on his final decision. (He told reporters the petition was “fantastic,” but also that it had no effect on him.)

Without public pressure, governors often pick former aides or allies to fill temporary vacancies (rather than politicians who could be seen as peers or rivals). That’s what happened in recent cases in Delaware, Florida and West Virginia. Patrick has the distinction of appointing his second temporary senator here; he tapped Paul Kirk after Senator Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009. That selection offers few clues into Patrick’s mindset, however, because Kirk was a former Kennedy aide and the “consensus choice” of his family, as The Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, Frank is conducting an unusually direct campaign for the appointment. He has done several rounds of media appearances, and argued that under the fiscal cliff deal, this spring could be one of the “most important” periods in “American financial-economic history.” He believes that plays to his strength. While in Congress, Frank was a budget expert and worked on cutting Pentagon spending, including outreach to Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. (See John Nichols’s reporting on Frank’s defense credentials.) And Frank has endorsed the current party favorite, Representative Ed Markey, who hopes to win the special election and join Massachussetts’ Senate lineage, from Paul Tsongas to Ted and John F. Kennedy.

Even if the Frank petition fails to move Patrick, it is a quick way to inject some pressure on a very top-down process. While Massachussetts ultimately enables voters to pick replacement senators—a more democratic approach that was chosen for purely partisan reasons in 2004—the appointment process has made its mark on the current Senate. Since Obama was elected president, ten senators have been appointed. Five of them are still serving—Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dean Heller, Brian Schatz and, since January 2, the Senate’s only African-American member, Tim Scott. (The Senate history office has a long list of appointees under the Seventeenth Amendment, which turned the Senate from an appointed body to an elected body in 1913.)

Nabbing an appointment is a huge edge for the next election, of course, so picking a deliberately temporary substitute is one way to keep the playing field more level. But even when it comes to the seat-warmer, governors should welcome ways to get the public more involved in the process.

In December, another online petition drive helped raise pressure on the White House to tackle gun control, Ari Melber wrote in his previous blog post.

After Shooting, Gun Control Petition Breaks White House Record

Will this time be any different?

As Americans try to process another horrific mass shooting, many have asked whether anything will change, given all the shootings that have come before. In one measurable way, however, the murder of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School is already different.

It is driving the largest organic push for gun control in many years. In fact, by Monday afternoon, calls for gun regulation on the White House website had eclipsed every other topic over the past year, including the previous record-holder, a petition advocating that Texas secede from the Union.

In roughly three days, more than 150,000 people have signed a petition calling on the White House to back legislation limiting access to guns. That is the most support that any petition has drawn since the White House launched its “we the people” platform. The concise petition states that gun control is the “only” way to reduce “the number of people murdered in gun related deaths.” Striking a cooperative tone, it also advocates a “bipartisan discussion” to advance gun regulation constistent with the Second Amendment.

Under new rules instituted by the Obama administration, any petition submitted online that garners 25,000 supporters is entitled to an official response from the administration. Sometimes the official responses are dismissive—like the president’s announcement that he still opposes legalizing pot—but the mechanism can also advance neglected issues.

The unusually strong support for this White House petition comes as other online efforts are breaking records of their own.

Staci Sarkin, an activist in New York, wrote her own petition calling for gun control in response to the Sandy Hook shooting.

“How many more senseless and entirely PREVENTABLE shootings have to occur,” she wrote, “before we do something about Gun Control.” Sarkin used SignOn.org, an organizing hub run by MoveOn.org. When her petition began “spreading rapidly” this weekend over e-mail and Facebook, MoveOn says it decided to circulate the impassioned appeal to its e-mail list. (MoveOn has about 7 million members.)

By Monday afternoon, Sarkin’s petition had 320,000 supporters and counting. “We’re seeing a massive surge in member energy around these issues, compared to a normal moment,” says Manny Herrman of MoveOn.org. “The top [gun control] petitions have brought in over 450,000 signatures,” he told The Nation, “and 193 new petitions have been created on this issue so far—an all time record.”

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Sarkin’s call, like the popular White House petition, focuses on practical steps to regulate access to guns—not ban them. She writes:

Gun Control doesn’t have to mean no guns… I’m suggesting we put tighter controls on acquiring and owning them. Gun show loopholes must be stopped. Ammunition should not be sold online. Mandatory wait periods should be enforced during which time a thorough background check, psychological and medical evaluation and character references should be completed… Training and testing should be mandatory.

While it’s easy to discount a sudden outpouring over such a terrible incident, the unusually large, spontaneous interest in these petitions could stoke a larger effort. (Some activists are also specifically targeting the NRA.) After all, in the Obama era, the protests which gained the strongest followings have focused on problems that both parties failed to address. Occupy tackled income inequality, for example, while the Tea Party initially rallied against bailouts for Wall Street.

The politics of gun control have been fecklessly frozen within the consensus of the GOP and the Democratic Party for a long time—from the anguished but largely apolitical discussions after the recent spate of shootings, to a series of concrete legislative actions favoring the gun industry. (Congress and the past two presidents have been countering gun control, from a recent 2010 law allowing loaded weapons in national parks, to the 2005 law granting gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuits regarding gun violence.) Now, once again, people are talking about political “leadership” on gun control. If we want leadership, it’s clear that it will have to start from the bottom up.

Read George Zornick’s latest on how Walmart made Adam Lanza’s AR-15 the most popular assault weapon in America.

Tapping E-mail List, Obama Hammers GOP on Taxes and Discharge

The election may be over, but the Obama campaign’s e-mails are still coming.

On Monday, Obama campaign aide Stephanie Cutter e-mailed supporters asking for help in pressuring Congress to back the president’s tax plan. And in contrast to many past forays into Obama’s e-mail advocacy—which focused on broadly “building support” or thanking Democratic politicians who were already on board—the new effort aims squarely at the GOP.

Republicans are holding “middle-class tax cuts hostage,” writes Cutter, “because they want to cut taxes for millionaires.” (That may sound like political rhetoric, but it’s literally the House GOP’s current stance.) So the campaign is pitching a new online calling tool, which enables people to call their Republican representatives or, if you live in a blue area, to call fellow Obama supporters in redder pastures and urge them to get on the phone.

That’s pretty sophisticated activism. No volunteer time is wasted on Democratic representatives or the Senate, for example, which already passed Obama’s framework. The strategy also uses the web to mobilize phone bankers offline.

The model begins with the most motivated and connected activists—people who open Obama campaign e-mail, fire up a call tool platform and actually get on the phone. But then it bridges out to potential volunteers who might be less engaged now, or completely offline, and makes it easy for them to participate with just one call (a breeze compared to GOTV). The call script provides a phone number for the House switchboard, so the second caller never needs to log on to the call tool. But the call tool still registers that call, because the first volunteer posts it—so OFA can track who is volunteering and map which GOP districts are getting pressured.

This is what the script looks like:

This effort to tap Obama’s e-mail list, which has reportedly grown to 16 million people, also reinforces grassroots campaigns to peel off some House Republicans for an up or down vote on the tax proposal. Congressman Tim Walz, backed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is currently pushing a “discharge position” to force the direct vote. While bills don’t usually reach the House floor without the Speaker’s support, a discharge position can force a vote if it garners 218 signatures.

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Just like the mounting attention for reforming the filibuster, the public focus on the arcane tactics of discharge reflects an awareness that electoral victories are not enough—when majority rule is so routinely obstructed in the Congress. It’s a good sign that Obama is beginning to use his massive list not only to echo his preferred policies, but to build outrage and pressure on Congress to actually vote on legislation, rather than block it. Some Republican members have said, after all, that they do back middle-class tax cuts. Now all they have to do is sign on the dotted line.

UPDATE:  At TechPresident, Micah Sifry writes:

"This email represents a critical shift in Obama's political strategy. Paid for by the Obama Victory Fund 2012, it is not aimed at re-electing the President--the ostensible purpose of that campaign entity--but at moving his legislative agenda. It is the President using his army to go directly in the face of Members of Congress who are perceived to stand in his way."

George Zornick is keeping a close eye on the fiscal cliff negotiations. In his latest, he says whatever deal is struck must address unemployment.

Will Obama Use His Campaign List to Break The Filibuster?

How many Obama campaign volunteers want to keep organizing to help push President Obama’s agenda in his second term?

At least 800,000.

That is the number of people who, after months of campaigning and hundreds of e-mails, still hit reply to a post-election survey from the Obama campaign and said they “want to keep volunteering.” Another 100,000 said they are interested in running for office someday, according to Obama field director Jeremy Bird.

These kind of numbers are inherently inflated. In organizing, there is always a gap between interested responses and the “hard count” of activists who actually show up to volunteer. (It’s like any party—the RSVP list is usually larger than the actual attendance.) Over the past five years, however, the Obama campaign built a formidable operation integrating web and field turnout.

After losing last month, even top Republicans associated with the Romney campaign conceded that Obama’s celebrated ground game was very effective and very “real.”

That’s more than Republican congressional leaders will concede about Obama’s mandate. It is also why Obama’s networked base—tens of millions of supporters online and the 800,000 super-activists who just RSVP’d for more volunteering—could be pivotal to his second term.

The future of OFA is a sensitive issue in Obama-land. Since the election, I spoke to several Obama staffers and a White House official about what OFA will do in the second term. (None would comment on the record.) While it’s understandably too early for OFA to map out its entire strategy—and they have little political incentive to do so publicly—it looks like OFA will begin by backing up the president’s position on the "fiscal cliff."

The campaign has already e-mailed out an infographic that supporters can share. It argues that the president’s budget proposals are better for the economy than the GOP’s austerity plan.  Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said at a post-election forum that OFA will probably ask supporters to pressure their members of Congress soon.  Some Obama officials also told me the fiscal cliff is the first organizing priority right now. That makes some sense, since Washington won’t talk about anything else until Christmas anyway.

But OFA could also go bigger than echoing the president’s position on a single issue—be it healthcare or the budget. It could pick big, strategic fights over how Washington works. There is a big one coming up, in fact.

As every newspaper reader, liberal activist or parliamentary junkie knows, the overarching barrier to most of Obama’s agenda is the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate. In fact, several of Obama’s second term priorities are not ideas in search of a majority—they are majorities in search of an up-or-down vote.

The Dream Act and the DISCLOSE Act, to name two, had majorities in both chambers during Obama’s first term, but they were filibustered to death. They probably await a similar fate unless the filibuster is reformed.

Some Democrats are trying to do just that, however, when the new Senate begins in January. Unlike the fiscal cliff debate, this reform faces the biggest opposition from other Democrats. Which brings us back to organizing.

While Obama supporters have some leverage over Republicans in certain House districts, they have far more leverage over Democratic senators, who need to maintain the Obama coalition for their next election. And for many Democratic activists, reforming the obstructionist, undemocratic Senate Rules has become a litmus test for whether you are serious about “change.” With OFA’s grassroots muscle—as the most effective field program in politics—and the president’s leadership, a pressure campaign might actually convert enough old-school Senate Democrats to support reforming the rules.  

About nine Democratic senators are currently on the fence about reforming the filibuster. Several are from bright blue states where OFA is strong and Obama won by large margins, such as California, Michigan and Hawaii, Obama's birthplace.

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The White House recently said it generally supports the rule changes, and Vice President Joe Biden will be gaveling in the new Senate (given the vice president’s official role as Senate president). But a White House official declined to comment on whether it would fight on this issue or engage the grassroots.

There are six weeks left. If Democrats don’t rally a majority, and Senate Republicans are allowed to continue obstructing most legislation by abusing the filibuster, then on January 20, much of President Obama’s second-term agenda will effectively be dead on arrival.

The White House should be worried about falling off that cliff.

John Nichols argues, "Don't Eliminate the Filibuster, Restore it."

Barack Obama's Decisive Victory for Liberal Government

President Obama’s re-election marks the most decisive mandate for an assertive, progressive governing model in well over a generation.

It is worth beginning with a memory. Barack Obama was first elected after a period of profound failure by elite and government institutions, from finance to foreign policy to Hurricane Katrina, and his first term immediately and unapologetically enacted a flurry of government solutions.

The new president used federal power to take populist action in a range of markets—health insurance, cars, banking and small business. In each case, Republicans responded with the same argument: government was too big, expensive and incompetent for these tasks.

They pressed that attack in Congress, with brinksmanship on the debt ceiling and record-breaking levels of obstruction. They went to court, appealing for a judicial check on Obama’s democratically enacted reforms. And they took their argument to the people, with a four-year anti-government crusade—first on the ground, with those early, evocative Tea Party protests targeting both parties for government spending; then on the air, with record-breaking spending on advertisements insisting that Obama’s government was out of control.

Some of those efforts flagged before Election Day, including the pivotal judicial endorsement of Obama’s healthcare law, but on Tuesday, they were officially and roundly rejected by the American public. It is hard to overstate the significance of the endorsement of Obama’s approach to government, after such a long, substantive battle during a punishing recession.

In fact, the Electoral College, an arbitrary political constraint, placed a special strain on this debate. That is because the swing states increased the focus on regions where people’s livelihoods literally depend on Obama’s economic intervention.  

The “role of government” was not a philosophical question in the Ohio, where three out of four voters said the economy is doing poorly and 59 percent backed the auto bailout; or in Nevada, which leads the nation in foreclosures. Politics has certainly changed a lot in an era of micro-targeting, Super PACS and Twitter. Apparently there is still a limit, however, on what cash and spin can do. Swing state voters did not believe that the government had nothing to do with saving Detroit, or that the Jeep factories their friends worked at were closing, or that eliminating public sector jobs is good for the job market, or that up was actually down because a television ad said so.

Reflecting on all those tactics, however, does suggest one limit on how much credit should accrue solely to the president. In politics, your opponent can be far more important than your vision. For a range of reasons, including the unusually fierce primary challenges that Republicans faced from the right, the GOP did not offer a moderate case to the nation this year. Republicans presented the coldest, most concentrated pitch for selfish individualism since Barry Goldwater. Historians may marvel at how Ayn Rand and the assault on “takers” became such mainstream themes in the year 2012. Or how nationally televised primary debates devolved into attacks on government obligations that were once located firmly in the zone of bipartisan consensus. National disaster response used to be an obvious government project, but Romney felt the need to pretend that states should pick up the tab; several Republicans disputed the duty of hospitals to provide emergency care to poor people, a humane tradition that was codified into federal law by, yes, Ronald Reagan.

And to be clear, as the politicians say, all of that doesn’t even reach the patronizing hypocrisy at the core of today’s GOP, a party which marches earnestly against government subsidies for healthcare but seeks a federal government role in your doctor’s office, your uterus and your marriage.

Those are old, often bitter debates. Yet the stakes and tone were stronger this year. That is partly due to the rise of powerful women—in the media, where familiar conservative ideas about rape and vaginal ultrasounds drew more outrage, and in Congress, where a record nineteen women are headed to the Senate next year—who shaped a more strident reckoning for the politics of sexism. In the October homestretch, President Obama even bolstered the feminist framework for his longstanding pro-choice stance, telling an interviewer that we “don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s healthcare decisions.”

Walking that bridge from economic to social policy, Obama’s Democratic Party not only looks less conflicted than the GOP, it also lines up with today’s majority. The line for liberals is pretty clear—the government should be in the business of advancing opportunity for all, but avoid meddling in personal choices. On Tuesday, several successful statewide initiatives reflected that balance. Voters endorsed Obama’s use of federal economic power, but rejected a government role for controlling who people marry, or whether they smoke pot at home.

In the end, this was a very long campaign. Despite all the silliness, it also offered a stark, substantive choice. Republicans said government can’t help much and people have to make it on their own. Obama said “we’re all in this together.” To apply Muhammad Ali’s famously short poem to America, it was “Me, We.”

And we won.

For more on what Obama's victory means for the country, read George Zornick's latest.

For Election Day, Obama Bests Romney in Online Mobilization

Ideology and style are not the only things dividing Obama and Romney heading into Election Day. The candidates also have very different approaches to mobilizing their base voters, especially on the Internet, where campaigns can now reach millions of supporters directly.

On Monday, the Romney campaign’s online outreach to supporters felt very October. With just a few hours left until Election Day, Paul Ryan’s Twitter account released a fundraising appeal, even though any money donated today is unlikely to be used for the election. (Recounts, of course, are another matter.)

Romney’s website, which is sure to see a surge of last-minute election traffic, was still devoting its valuable front-page real estate to a pitch for harvesting new e-mails. The site also offered a few other options for visitors to click—such as donating, volunteering and closing arguments. The last two days of an election are no time for recruiting new e-mails and volunteers, however. A more field-focused approach was evident on Obama’s homepage.

Obama’s website is splashed with an appeal for visitors to “confirm your polling location.” The site also features state-specifc banners to help people “find out where to vote,” along with local maps. That effort compliments GottaVote.org, a voting portal the campaign launched this year, which provides state-specific details on polling locations, hours and requirements for voting. Here’s the page from Monday:

Now, when it comes to digital politicking, it’s worth recalling that two of the most common criticism are that: (1) it’s divorced from reality on the ground; and (2) it primarily involves echo-chambers of like-minded citizens.

For election mobilization, however, any echo effect is a benefit, because campaigns are done with persuasion. They only want to contact supporters for voter mobilization. (After all, turning out opponents is a negative return on investment.) And the test for the field efficacy of online outreach depends on the strength of the networks being activated (not the technology itself).

The Obama campaign—which has spent years cultivating resilient networks of supporters who are as comfortable clicking to donate as they are walking neighborhoods to mobilize—is betting that its online platforms provide one more small edge in a tight race.

President Obama also has an early voting advantage in Ohio. Ari Berman reports.

The Liberal and Digital Battle Over Change

While the political world is fixated on the presidential campaign, an important fight has been brewing between progressive activists and online organizers. Those two groups are not mutually exclusive, of course, so this debate upends some traditional ideological boundaries.

It started last week, when The Huffington Post reported on change at Change.org. Now, you don’t need to know the name Change.org, as a website, in order to care about this fight. In fact, when Change.org succeeds, you should hardly hear about it all.

That’s because Change.org is about other people. It provides a platform to empower citizens with free organizing and petition drives, using the hook of viral campaigns to amplify the voices of unknown activists. The model can work really well. If you follow progressive politics, you probably know about some of the people who have used the site for unlikely breakthroughs.

There was Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old woman working two part-time jobs who launched a petition against ATM fees last year, which sparked a national network of outrage and led Bank of America to reverse its policies. Or Jenny Holcomb, a Brown university freshman who protested the overzealous prosecution of an autistic 15-year-old who hit her teacher, sparking national concern over the felony charges, which were later dropped. Or three high school students who posted a petition sharing their “shock” that a woman journalist had not been selected to moderate a presidential debate in twenty years. (Pictured at right.) Candy Crowley ended that record this month, but only after the male-dominated debate commission faced bad press and unusual scrutiny when the petition took off.

Each of those efforts have a few key elements in common. The petitions were started by young people whose idealism—and even potential naïveté—was a plus. These young people appealed for support as amateur citizen organizers, not members of the professional political class. Their calls to action were clear and essentially pure, in contrast to larger organizations, which balance activism with competing interests like fundraising and “list-building.” And, crucial for any unfunded political organizing, the proposed outcomes were precise and final—Cancel the fees, Drop the charges, Pick a woman. None of these campaigns suffered, in other words, from the pressure on permanent organizations to perpetuate their existence by maintaining the problems they are supposed to solve. (Robert Michels, the famous critic of elite political behavior, would probably approve.)

Those features were facilitated by Change.org’s user-friendly model, which makes it a cinch to create or join a web petition. It’s what network theorist Clay Shirky calls “ridiculously easy group formation”—the conversations and links that form when the barriers to group interaction are lowered.

Those barriers don’t matter as much for well-funded or especially salient causes, such as electing a president, or protecting Medicare for seniors. Many losing battles, however, are handicapped by the high barrier to entry for political organizing. By filling that void, Change.org has stoked activism on issues that institutional groups have either neglected or failed to address effectively. (No national organization is devoted to ATM fee increases, for example, while the groups that work on women’s representation in media never drew the same public interest as the high school students who took on the debate commission.) It’s no surprise that many of the issues in that void are reformist or liberal, and Change.org has generally refused to work with conservative groups.

Until now.

Which brings us back to the fight. Change.org recently decided to change course and accept “corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns” and conservative political sponsorships, according to The Huffington Post’s account of internal company documents. The article casts the move as a betrayal of the company’s founding mission, a failure to transparently engage its users, and a capitulation to the conservative, corporatist pressure on “for-profit companies founded on progressive values” to make a “strategic break with the progressive movement.” (Ben Rattray, Change.org’s founder, released a detailed rebuttal.)

Some liberals have criticized the move, including a fairly strong objection from the Campaign for America’s Future, a leading progressive organization which first obtained Change.org’s internal documents about the policy. Raven Brooks, a respected activist who directs the annual Netroots Nation conference, responded to the report by accusing Change.org of “selling out the progressive movement.” Another leading techno-liberal disagrees.

At TechPresident, Micah Sifry not only defends Change.org’s ability to do good things while allowing a wider range of political views on the site—he argues that the more open, non-ideological model is an improvement.

“Change.org has figured out how to take advantage of the abundant nature of online connectivity to enable millions of people to win their own fights,” Sifry argues, “but this new model may also be threatening to lots of established organizations, who prefer to decide for their ‘members’ what campaigns to work on, and in effect get paid for representing their members’ passions” (emphasis added).

Under this view, the real rift is not about left and right. It’s about traditional top-down leadership versus bottom-up organizing; it’s about a tension between the closed political establishment (across the spectrum) and a more open organizing model. That’s not just rhetoric. Liberal insiders are fighting over Change.org precisely because it has the crowd-power to disrupt a lot of liberal advocacy.

As a hub for so many grassroots projects, Change.org draws up to 2 million users a month, which is more growth than most political organizations can generate in a year. Sifry says those numbers explain why groups pay Change.org to sponsor campaigns and effectively “buy fresh e-mail addresses” through sponsored petitions. (Change.org is structured as a for-profit Benefit Corporation, which frees it from the legal obligation on conventional companies to maximize profits.) The strong participation also explains why the company didn’t want to select who can use its services on a case-by-case basis.

In the end, the intramural fissures over the policy do not reflect fundamentally divergent goals so much as different lenses for how to look at, yes, change.

If you apply a traditional coalition paradigm, the story is that Change.org began by teaming up with a loose coalition of liberal groups, found success, and then left them behind as it grew into a something that looks more like a self-sustaining global technology company than a progressive meetup. That is the story of betrayal and “selling out.”

But you can also apply an open-source paradigm, where the value of the system is defined by who it empowers and how it works, rather than any pre-set ideological objectives. Think of Wikipedia, or the bottom-up organizing models of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. Under this view, Change.org is simply expanding its civic services, and the more open, the better. While the open source view has loyal adherents, it is not a conventional ideology. It is a belief in a system.

Navigating a battle between partisan, progressive organizing and decentralized petition drives is, at bottom, like trying to choose between the Democratic Party and democracy. The ideas are on different planes. If you believe in democracy, you accept, by definition, the existence and triumph of opposing ideas. The people who believe deeply in the Internet’s force as a commons operate on that kind of premise. And the pivotal, early policy decisions that created a fairly open Internet — making it mostly free and anonymous, limiting government control, and providing legal protections to separate the content of users from the agnostic role of platforms — have worked quite well. That doesn’t mean liberals are wrong to lament that a powerful platform is branching out beyond liberal content. But there is certainly nothing illiberal about inviting more people into the process.

Check out Ari Melber's blog for more reads on politics and new media.

Obama Campaign Launches Sexy Lena Dunham Ad: 'Your First Time'

The Obama campaign released a sexy, controversial and hip pitch for voting on Thursday from Lena Dunham, the star and creator of the HBO show Girls, at a time when sex, abortion and women’s rights have been front and center on the campaign trail.

The Obama campaign has aggressively used YouTube to mobilize base voters, and it often taps celebrities who have a built-in viral punch. But this video is unusual even for the young, digital set in Chicago. The ad’s style is vintage Lena: edgy and informed, controversial but achingly self-aware, sexually proud and affirmatively feminist—if anyone can pull off an extended metaphor of voting for the president by giving him your virginity, it’s Lena Dunham.

Conservative bloggers, of course, were already cranking up a reflexively outraged response just hours after the video was released on Thursday. Well, they never claimed to have a sense of humor.

While it’s safe to say that Dunham’s tone is different from every other ad the Obama campaign has ever made—she jokes about “doing it with” the president—it neatly reinforces the president’s closing argument about women’s rights.

Dunham riffs that “your first time” should be with “someone who cares whether you get health insurance, and specifically whether you get birth control.” On Thursday night, that someone launched an overtly feminist attack on Republicans. Riding Air Force One en route to campaign events, President Obama told NBC News that Republicans’ recent remarks on abortion show that “you don’t want politicians, the majority of them male, making a series of decisions about women’s healthcare issues.” While some might think the President is simply responding to incidents and press questions, the Obama campaign has been aggressively promoting his remarks, circulating a YouTube clip of the exchange to reporters under the headline, “Politicians Should Stay Out of Women’s Health Decisions.”

In the end, maybe Lena Dunham said it best: “You want to do it with a guy who brought the troops out of Iraq—you don’t want a guy who says, ‘Oh, hey, I’m at the library studying,’ when really he’s out not signing The Lilly Ledbetter Act.”


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