Sunday, November 16, 2008

the third decade, our move

Here's one political movement struggling with the technological environment, at the Washington Monthly:
Frank Luntz, speaking at a panel discussion at the Republican Governors Association yesterday, noted Barack Obama's enormous email list. "He's got 10 million names and our candidate doesn't know how to use this," Luntz said, holding up a BlackBerry. "There is a problem there."

Yes, and his running mate is so far behind, she thinks bloggers are pajama-clad basement-dwellers.
Here's the real issue, though; the guy who's hammering them for not knowing anything about the Internet's best argument is that the other side have a huge pile of e-mail addresses. Luntz is thinking in terms of 1990s hard-right campaigning - blast-faxing, talk radio, direct mail, robocalls. We need to collect more e-mail addresses so we can spam them with talking points, beg for money, and push out plausibly deniable scare stories they can circulate. We'll club them to death with our spam.

Here's more, in an instant-classic post by Marc Lynch.
In short, Movement X adapted very quickly and effectively to the multichannel television revolution.. but its competitors have caught up, its advantage has diminished, and it is not likely to ever again enjoy the TV advantage it had in the past. Information overload, intense competition and fragmentation, and the increasingly aggressive counter-ideology campaigns all stand in the way.

What about internet forums? Such forums allowed X to circumvent editors by posting videos and statements directly to forums where all news producers could pick them up directly - and once anybody, however obscure, ran with it the others were sure to follow. Beyond that, though, they were not really useful for mass audiences, who were unlikely to find their way to the forums, whether or not they were password protected. Instead, they were 'semi-public spheres' where those already committed to the identity could download materials and engage in arguments about tactics and strategy and doctrine. The forums built group cohesion, boosting morale and strengthening identity - and offering recruiters a pool of potentials.

But forums also had problems. Their audience was limited to those already at the second or even third stage of mobilization. The doctrinal arguments on the forums tended to reward the most doctrinaire at the expense of the pragmatists, arguably driving X's doctrine even farther from the mainstream. Sometimes, the debates could undermine morale or turn into open dissent, to the dismay of movement leaders.
You'll probably have guessed by now that Movement X is actually Al-Qa'ida. I suppressed it in this post and made a couple of small changes so as to point up the astonishing similarities. You may also notice that the last paragraph is a case of the Daniel Davies theory of Internet counter-mobilisation. But I found this bit especially interesting:
This could potentially strengthen the 'organization' part... but at the expense of a greater distance from the pool of potential recruits who would not be sufficiently trusted to join. Overall it's hard to see how AQ could adapt social networking without creating such vulnerabilities. Its rivals, on the other hand, have no such problems - Muslim Brotherhood youth are all over Facebook.
This is a special case of a general trend. Are we not seeing a structural shift away from the elite model of political organising - neoconservatives and Al-Qa'ida International, as opposed to its local franchises - towards something else we haven't quite defined yet, like the Obama campaign, the European Union, and Hezbollah? In the first, it's all about message discipline, ideological purity, and entryism. You seek inner purity in order to contaminate the others. In the second, it's almost as if you're aiming to be subverted yourself.

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