Evan Bayh: “Facebook me.” Progressives: “Sure!”

Written jointly with Ronit Aviva Dancis

Evan Bayh's stock price on the Intrade prediction markets

“Evan Bayh for Democratic VP Nominee” on Intrade Prediction Market

The last time we heard from Senator Evan Bayh was early July when he voted with the Republicans against all three amendments to strip telecom immunity from the FISA legislation. A month later, here was Max Bernstein’s Can Progressives Derail Evan Bayh’s VP Train via Facebook? kicking things off on Max and the Marginalized (“a band and a blog”):

At about 2am last night after a gig in Austin, we launched 100,000 Strong Against Evan Bayh for VP on Facebook. We have about 99,000 to go but we are growing at the rate of about 100 names per hour now.

FISA isn’t Bayh’s only issue in progressives’ eyes, of course; there’s also a few other minor matters, like him having co-sponsored the Iraq War Resolution, and the way his nomination would clash with Obama’s message of “change” (a point Mike Lux makes well in Opposing Bayh for VP) . So Max’ call struck a chord.

The group was about 300 when we joined it last Wednesday morning; it hit 2000 Thursday morning, 3000 late Thursday night, and is now over 4000. To put this in perspective, the Evan Bayh for Vice President Facebook group has 159 members, and his All America PAC group 959 despite his promoting it heavily, for example in this 2006 Facebook Evan Bayh video where he encourages college Democrats to “Facebook me.”

As well as outnumbering the opposition, like any good social network campaign, 100,000 Strong also has the nobayhvp Twitter feed, a wiki, and a ton of coverage including Steve Kornacki’s Will Facebook be Evan Bayh’s Waterloo? in the New York Observer, Ari Melber’s Can’t Stop/Won’t Stop (Bayh VP Edition) in The Washington Independent and mentions in/by Talking Points Memo, techPresident, Attackerman, Atrios, Obsidian WIngs, OpenLeft, Huffington Post, the NY Times’ Caucus blog, The Chicago Tribune’s Swamp blog, Politico, dday on digby’s Hullabaloo, The Nation’s Campaign Matters blog, Something Awful, the Rachel Maddow Show on Air America, Pam’s House Blend, booman, Mightgodking.com, Firedog Lake, Joe.My.God, Bob Cesca, KPFA, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post’s The Trail, Howey Politics Indiana, the Indianapolis Star, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times’ Top of the Ticket, ….

That’s a lot of coverage. Stories about activism and social networks are hot hot hot: Get FISA Right (aka GFR), #dontgo‘s use of Twitter, and now 100,000 Strong. Of course, a lot of the early links in all of these cases were from bloggers who were part of or aligned with the movement … still, the momentum that builds up causes the political blogs affiliated with mainstream media outlets take notice — and start covering a story that otherwise might not get attention. Coordinated action by bloggers provided huge leverage for a relatively small number of people to be able to get this much attention.

The initial sources of 100,000 Strong’s growth were very similar to GFR’s. People initially found the group mostly from Huffington Post, Atrios, and links elsewhere in the netroots; radio coverage helped as well. 100,000 strong started off growing more quickly than GFR did at a comparable stage (stats here and here), most likely because of the breadth of coverage, much much more than GFR was getting at a comparable stage. Again, bloggers’ coordinated action — pointing people to the group — assembled critical mass.

One important difference is that this is a less complex situation than the FISA fight, which was being conducted on multiple fronts by many players: legislative, calls to the campaign, advocacy calls to Senators and so on. With FISA, bloggers were busy covering convoluted parliamentary procedure, analyzing complex legislation, following a complicated legislative fight and just plain playing catchup with a bill that had a multi-year backstory. The VP pick is a very simple story, and so are the potential responses. Short of organizing a calling campaign into Obama campaign headquarters, not an easy thing to do in August during the Olympics, the Facebook group is the only game in town.

Facebook logoDespite its initial rapid growth, 100,000 Strong wasn’t able to take advantage of Facebook’s powerful viral mechanisms like events and group invitations to reach the vast majority of people who don’t read political blogs. The potential is clearly there; numbers for “Snowball effect” group, which got to 90,000 people in a week, give a good baseline for what’s possible. This may not matter so much with Evan Bayh — the amount of attention paid to how badly “VP who co-sponsored the Iraq War Resolution and is currently saber-rattling against Iran” clashes with “change” has probably changed the equation significantly — but is something that progressives will need to do a better job with to continue to build on these successes.

What’s fascinating is that even without taking advantage of those network effects, Facebook proved an extremely powerful amplifier here. The focus on the Facebook group has helped anti-Bayh activists get their message out clearly, quickly, and effectively — and cheaply, too. Not only that, people are getting better at this with practice; the progressive blogosphere, for example, reacting more quickly and broadly than during FISA.

Several of the names involved here are familiar from GFR days, and we’re reaping a lot of benefits from having worked together before and taken good notes with Get FISA Right (the statistics, for example, proved very useful when looking at 100,000 Strong’s growth rates). The “map” of how people found the new group is extremely valuable for anybody doing grassroots activism online — most obviously and directly for progressives, but also for civil libertarians.

Thoughtful, intelligent people with jobs don’t launch sites like this on Facebook.

— “Obama-Bayh ’08”, in a comment on Kate Lithicum’s Facebook group urges Barack Obama to pass on Evan Bayh

Paul Rosenberg’s We are lame on OpenLeft highlights the strange phenomenon of the extremely negative reactions this kind of effort provokes in some. It doesn’t look like traditional advocacy, and those who try to organize people to take direct action may have become suspicious of something that just seems too easy — click click and you’re done. Of course, it’s not really that simple; a lot of work goes into getting the word out and making it an interesting story, but especially for people who don’t have experience with Facebook activism that’s not obvious. On top of that, there’s a generational issue: many perceive Facebook as something teens and college kids play with, not an activism tool, and so in a time when it’s common knowledge that elected officials and their staff tend to dismiss emails and online petitions because they are so easy these days, it can be galling to realize that something as frivolous as Facebook groups can be influential. As Jennifer Nix pointed out in a comment, though

I think one can hardly be serious in thinking that Facebook is not a reasonable way of getting the Obama Campaign’s attention. My friend, Scott Goodstein, and others working so hard and fabulously for the campaign, have shown how important these social networking sites–and Facebook in particular–have been in organizing on behalf of the campaign. It only makes sense that, as activists and citizens, we should use this tool to communicate with the campaign, to let them know what their constituents–not just the pundits and DC cocktail set–are thinking about his VP choices.

Indeed. And by Monday, as Ari Melber summarized in Slouching From Bayh – Result of the Anti-Draft, the conventional wisdom had started to shift strongly against Bayh. Checking the Intrade prediction market, Bayh — who was at 33 right before the activism started — is now at 18.

Looks like he got Facebooked.