Perhaps for the first time in his life, Senator Barack Obama may have reason to commiserate with the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and George Allen. They surely could tell him a few stories about what it is like when Mike Stark has you in his sights.
Mr. Stark, a 39-year-old former computer programmer and third-year law student at the University of Virginia, made a name for himself through his uncanny ability to get past the screeners for Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Limbaugh and other right-wing radio hosts to ask embarrassing questions. He recorded the conversations — they usually ended abruptly — and posted them on his Web site, and his renown grew.
In 2006, he took an interest in statewide politics and recorded a couple of body slams during George Allen’s snakebitten Senate campaign in Virginia, asking about accusations of Mr. Allen’s use of racial epithets.
Mr. Stark’s latest project has taken him to the Web site of Mr. Obama, who happens to be Mr. Stark’s choice for president. And while he said he did not relish making Mr. Obama a target, Mr. Stark is using the candidate’s own social-networking portal, my.barackobama.com, to confront him.
A little more than a week ago, Mr. Stark suggested to a group of liberal activists who share an e-mail list that they should organize a group on the portal to lobby their candidate to oppose legislation granting legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants. The immunity is part of an update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that is set to be debated this week.
“Obama is getting mad props for social networking,” Mr. Stark recalled arguing. “Why don’t we use social networking to let him know that he can’t keep elbowing his progressive base — the people who got him the nomination — away from the policy table?”
A member of my.barackobama .com started the anti-FISA group, and Mr. Stark quickly signed on.
In those 10 days or so, the group, with its ever-so-polite name, “Senator Obama Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity — Get FISA Right,” has grown to more than 18,000 members and become the largest public group on the campaign site.
On Thursday, the movement drew a response from the candidate himself — a long, conciliatory note that explained his decision to support the FISA bill. “This was not an easy call for me,” Mr. Obama said in the statement, which was posted to the diary of Joe Rospars, a top Internet adviser to the campaign. “I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect.”
The debate on Mr. Obama’s Web site shows how a force he has harnessed — the power of social networking — can also be an unruly, unpredictable one that can turn back on him.
“We felt we had a change candidate who would take everyone’s concerns seriously,” Mr. Stark said. “What we have is a stiff-arm to the progressive base, and it has really raised a question of how much of a change is this guy going to bring.”
Yet he conceded that a rift had emerged among his allies. “Some people are putting the best face on it,” he said. “At least he responded. And that is the best face. People remember Nader and don’t want to go through this again.”
The in-house protest network has raised some intriguing questions for candidates who use social networking. Just how much dissent should be allowed on their Web sites? Can similar protests be mounted by opposing campaigns infiltrating the site?
It is hard to read the fallout in terms of the Obama campaign. A spokesman said the campaign’s policy was to screen groups as they were proposed, and reject only those that advocated hate speech or made personal attacks.
As for the Web site becoming an organizing tool for friendly critics, the spokesman repeated an earlier statement: “This campaign has an extraordinary group of committed supporters, and we greatly appreciate their willingness to share their time and ideas with us. We believe that an open dialogue is an important part of any campaign, and are happy that my.barackobama.com has become a vehicle for that conversation.”
Andrew Rasiej, an analyst of online politics who opposed the FISA law, said the episode benefited Mr. Obama. “What’s the actual political damage?” he asked. “The fact that he has people complaining on his site? What does that mean? If anything, it’s a positive, because he is allowing a debate on his site.”
And, lately, the plot has thickened. Mr. Stark said the anti-FISA group now contains those who oppose its very existence. “Some people have joined the group to criticize — What are you doing, hurting the campaign like that?” he said. “They joined the group that I created to challenge me. I really like this means of communicating.”