My colleague Joan Walsh has done a thorough job of explaining the political dynamics around the Republican National Committee’s disingenuous assault on MoveOn’s “Bush in 30 Seconds” ad contest. But there’s one aspect of this into which I want to delve a little more deeply.
At BloggerCon last fall, where talk about candidates’ blogs was the rage, it was clear that the doomsday scenario for political campaigns experimenting with “emergent democracy” went something like this: (a) Overenthusiastic supporter of candidate, “un-controlled” by headquarters, posts something impolitic on a candidate’s blog or message board. (b) Candidate’s opponents jump on the posting, spotlighting it in attack ads as if it were the campaign’s official line. (c) Candidate finds him/herself in trouble, and wonders whether all this idealistic stuff about “emergent democracy” was worth it.
Well, the scenario has now happened — albeit in a somewhat different form, since MoveOn is an advocacy group rather than a candidacy. Anyone familiar with the online world is unlikely to be fooled by the RNC attack on MoveOn: It’s painfully obvious that MoveOn was running an open competition, that some of the entries were bound to be outre or inappropriate, and that the open voting process was likely to insure that (as happened) the good entries rose to the top.
What the Republicans are doing is pretending that every single entry in the contest was endorsed by MoveOn. It’s as if I went over to the New York Times’ message boards, found some idiot’s rant about how the Trilateral Commission controls the universe, and held a press conference denouncing Arthur Sulzberger for condoning wacked-out conspiracy theories.
Except for one thing: MoveOn was apparently vetting the entries “for legal issues.” And once you start vetting submitted content, you’re considered (under the law) more like a publisher. So MoveOn does have an iota of responsibility here.
In reaction to the controversy, MoveOn organizers say they will vet more carefully in the future. An alternative they should consider: Vet less. Open the mike even more. Make yourself less of a publisher, and thus less open to spurious attack. In the long run, I’m quite confident that the public will be able to understand the difference between user-generated content and a campaign’s or organization’s official material. In the short term, the Republicans are getting some dubious mileage out of deliberately confusing people.
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