Secrets of the Conservative Media Machine

Just as insurgency helped the large MyBarackObama community create tight bonds as an ideologically coherent community, Obama's victory undid them. Shortly after Obama took office, Democratic planners moved the MyBarackObama listserv and online community into the apparatus of the Democratic National Committee, converting it into Organizing for America. The social capital of the community evaporated quickly as the DNC ordered the community to support conservative politicians like Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, or to simply fall in line with the agenda of the president, even when policies drifted from ideologically pure campaign promises that had brought people to the web site initially.

While MyBarackObama died a quick death as a functional community, the Right went to work building communities to oppose Obama and his agenda. Republican consultants flocked to Ning, an easy tool to create entire social networks for niche communities. Ning replicates common features of any social network: Users may create online identities, send messages within the network, post links and news articles, and create events for offline activities.

Template Ning networks provided the Right with the ability to quickly assemble Tea Party groups without the appearance of top-heavy Republican partisanship. Eric Odom, the former new media director of Sam Adams Alliance, used his consulting firms Strategic Activism and American Liberty Alliance to create dozens of ready-made Ning web sites to cultivate the early stages of the Tea Party movement. Some Tea Party groups he created, like the Patriot Caucus, were geared toward a national constituency, while others catered to specific localities, such as Lehigh County in Pennsylvania. Although the web sites appeared to be citizen generated, all of Odom's sites were actually centrally planned and operated. Every major Tea Party organization got in on the act: Smart Girl Politics, working with Odom's colleagues, created a Ning for Tea Party women; Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, used her Liberty Central group to help local Tea Party groups in Florida build Ning web sites; and the lobbying firm Libertas Global Partners created Regular Folks united using Ning to organize Tea Party groups. Grassroots Action Inc., a company that thrived by building huge email and petition lists using conservative outrage over immigrants or gay rights, operated as a business by selling its lists to corporate or politics interests. After Obama's election, Grassroots Action redesigned their network as a Ning, called ResistNet. Even Glenn Beck, with his so-called 9/12 movement, used Ning to develop local and national communities of supporters.

The power of Ning is the illusion of open, democratic communities. Republican operators and consultants in control of most of the Tea Party Nings set the agenda, administer the talking points available on the main page, and have the ability to censor information they disapprove of. Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest Ning communities of over 100,000 members, was regularly fed action items by lobbyist-run entities such as FreedomWorks. So when members of Tea Party community web sites received emails from web site administrators to call Congress to oppose a student lending bill or hold a rally against a Democratic member of Congress, the orders appeared to come from community members of their respective Ning networks. To the casual user, the site appeared to be maintained by citizen activists, but in many cases the actual online organizers worked for right-wing corporate fronts or a Republican campaign. Functionally, the Ning social networks provided grassroots cover for the oil interests funding FreedomWorks or Republican campaigns paying Odom.

Republicans in Congress also seized upon a similar Internet technology to create an illusion of popular support for their corporate-friendly agenda. The best example would be a program touted by House GOP leadership called America Speaking Out. America Speaking Out offered the public the ability to submit policy ideas, and then vote them up or down. Republicans promised to campaign and eventually legislate on the most popular policies using the web site's results.

The campaign document Republicans produced shortly before the 2010 midterms, supposedly based on the America Speaking Out voted ideas, actually ignored the will of the people. First, any idea to raise taxes was censored from the site. But even the most popular ideas did not make the cut. In one section, four out of the five ideas with the most votes concerned marijuana decriminalization and legalization. In the economy section, the top idea was the legislation, proposed by Democrats, to end tax loopholes for companies that ship jobs overseas. In another section, ending earmarks ranked as one of the most popular ideas. However, the final Republican "Pledge to America" contained boilerplate Republican campaign pledges like repealing Obama's reforms and reducing the deficit. It omitted many of the most popular ideas from their web site, even earmark reform. Regardless, the House Republican leadership hailed their pledge as revolutionary because of the America Speaking Out voting system. Shortly before unveiling the pledge, Representative Mike Pence (R- Ind.) declared, the "Democrat [sic] majority isn't listening, but House Republicans will."

This trick deflected the fact that Republicans in 2010 failed to produce any ideas to address climate change, energy independence, job creation, rising inequality and poverty, or America's health care crisis. America Speaking Out was more of a public relations gimmick than an actual way to incorporate public opinion into policy making. Similarly, Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Va.) created a web site called YouCut for the public to vote on federal programs to eliminate. Many of the programs were simplified or distorted with wasteful-sounding names. One such program targeted by YouCut, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund, created 240,000 jobs in a matter of months, but YouCut falsely characterized it as a job-killing welfare program. Another item on YouCut, the Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Program, had already been eliminated by Obama's budget, yet the Republican web site claimed killing the project would be a YouCut idea. The first few months of YouCut targeted only 0.017 percent of the federal budget for elimination, but the online vote platform gave the impression that Republicans were serious about incorporating the public's ideas for eliminating "waste."

Excerpted from The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right

Tags: fox news, republican party, right-wing media, talk radio

    • Lee Fang
    • Lee Fang is an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute and a San Francisco-based journalist covering the intersection of lobbying, politics, and political movements. He is a contributing writer for the Nation, and has a book slated to appear in early 2013 on the campaign by conservatives to block President Obama's domest...

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