Bringing Down the House
It's rather astounding. Visit this web page, type in your ZIP-code and -- voila -- you'll find a list of house parties near you that are screening veteran Hollywood filmmaker Robert Greenwald's compelling new documentary, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," on Sunday, Dec. 7.
"Uncovered" effectively deconstructs the case for war with Iraq, pointing out the lies and flimsy evidence that underpinned the Bush administration's justifications. It is an important work because it goes directly to the credibility of this administration.
Organized efficiently by MoveOn, the innovative online activist group, as of this writing there are 2,700 parties scheduled across the country -- and the number continues to grow.
Thinking outside the media box has been crucial to the success of "Uncovered." Says Greenwald, "What's unusual about this film is that it's being seen in 'real time' -- the same debates about the ramifications of Bush's Iraq war policies debated in the film, are taking place everyday, at work places, in the media, and will surely be a key topic in the 2004 election. If I had produced this film in the traditional way -- finding a distributor, trying to line up exposure on public TV, etc. it would have taken a year or two ... 'Uncovered' would have been an after-the-fact documentary; not a real life experience."
If there are 20 people at an average party, this means will be more than 54,000 people watching "Uncovered" at the same time on "opening night." That's quite an accomplishment; but still, it's only the beginning; those who see the film may show it to their family and friends in a sophisticated, Internet-facilitated example of "viral" marketing.
MoveOn's strong support of Greenwald's documentary is its biggest experiment as a mediamaker and viral marketer. MoveOn, which helped fund the film, has already distributed more than 30,000 copies to its members as part of a fundraising campaign.
From one coast to the other and every place in between, thousands of people of all stripe are hosting or attending gatherings. They will also be invited to participate in a giant conference call with Greenwald and MoveOn leadership after the film is seen.
Here's a small sampling of some of the events taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, as their hosts describe them on MoveOn's house party page:
- "We will meet at 5pm to start mingling, drinking, shmokin', and enjoying vegan treats. ...Afterwards, we'll hang, imbibe as we feel like it, and continue to discuss what a disaster W's policies are for the U.S. and the world and how we can best one-term him like his father ...we will have a DJ spinning disks until about 9pm."
- "Provocative, stimulating discussion, yummy snacks and good people will gather together to view a film about truth and deceit."
- "At the beautiful Buena Vista House in the Berkeley Hills. Your hosts will be Johnny and the New Moon Literary Society."
Moving across the country:
- "at Detroit Art Space (32 registered participants)"
- (In Boston) "MoveOn's "Uncovered" with 2020 Democrats (77 registered participants). We've got a huge place to watch this together. Bring friends! Politics is so much fun with popcorn."
- "Sorry my party is completely filled up. 26 of my friends have signed up. But there is another party around the corner on Beals Street."
Obviously, the parties aren't limited to any single political campaign:
- "Speaker from Senator John Kerry's presidential campaign and local artists, opera singer, DJ, and local musicians."
- "Joyful gathering of Dean supporters with 3 friendly, trained, but furry indoor dogs. Guests must like & respect dogs. Allergic people will not be comfortable here."
- "Siskel, Ebert and Kucinich fans welcome! And everyone else too, because we HAVE to get Bush out of the White House while we still have a country left. The brutal attack on our civil liberties in Miami is a scary portent."
Clearly "Uncovered" is rapidly becoming the hot video product bolstering the growing "regime change movement," which represents the large collection of liberals, independents and progressives who are more focused on getting Bush out of office than on choosing the Democratic nominee.
Do It Yourself Media
MoveOn has several other creative media initiatives underway. The group has launched a PR campaign to make sure the ads they buy get free news coverage across the country by engaging hundreds of local volunteers to hold press conferences and talk to reporters about the effect of President Bush's policies. MoveOn has also created a Fox Watch project after observing that there is little separation between Fox reporters and executives, and the Republican party.
In another example of DIY (Do It Yourself) media, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund has launched Bush in 30 Seconds, a political TV ad contest to help find the most creative and memorable ideas for ads that tell the truth about George Bush's policies. As MoveOn says: "You don't have to be trained in the art of filmmaking to participate, you just need to be ready, willing, and able to turn your clever ideas into a real 30-second ad." Aimed at Gen Y and Gen Xers, MoveOn has assembled a panel of celebrity judges, including Jack Black, Michael Moore, Donna Brazile, Gus Van Sant, Michael Stipe, Margaret Cho, and Moby.
A Super Constituency?
With all this activity, it's not surprising that MoveOn has become increasingly visible in the mainstream "old" media. A recent, well publicized event was the announcement that billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis have contributed $5 million in matching funds to MoveOn Voter Fund to spur donations from its members to buy media in battleground states. The initial message of the ads: to hold George W. Bush's feet to the fire regarding the loss of two million jobs since he was elected.
But as the presidential election moves closer, MoveOn's revolutionary potential lies not in buying advertising space from media corporations, but rather its ability to circumvent the corporate media with quality content that could potentially turn many of its nearly 2 million members -- and the larger group they influence, potentially 10 million or more -- into viral marketers, and perhaps more.
The growth of the Internet has spawned a whole new class of super-communicators; individuals who have list servs and blogs, and are the "viral" revolutionaries carrying the message of MoveOn and many progressive web sites.
Many MoveOn members are influential in their communities. In the new communications parlance they are "connectors," a term made famous by Malcolm Gladwell's book, "The Tipping Point." Seth Godin in his book, "Unleashing the Idea Virus," calls them "sneezers." Whatever you call them, they are not shy about spreading their feelings or recruiting family and friends. They know that communication from a trusted friend or colleague is far more influential than an advertisement or a direct market appeal.
Can substantial numbers of MoveOn members register friendly voters, gather email addresses, hold the corporate media accountable, bring together voters in various ways at the grassroots in the so-called "battleground states" -- and perhaps most importantly, communicate a positive clear vision of a different future that is an attractive alternative to the current administration?
Can this networked super-constituency evolve from well-informed financial supporters to election organizers? In a sense, the whole world is watching to find out.
The MoveOn house party phenomenon -- and an earlier anti-war effort that sparked thousands of candlelight vigils across the globe -- demonstrate a fundamental precept of online organizing referred to sometimes as the Five C's: Connecting Computers Can Create Community.
It's easy to see the evidence -- and proven success -- of this principle in the current political landscape. The Dean campaign has leaped ahead of its competitors in fundraising by building a vast pool of small donors who contribute on the Internet, attend face-to-face meet-ups via social networking software, and become powerful campaign organizers by using email for viral marketing
The limits of a blunt instrument like mass media advertising, especially on TV, are well known. But compound these limitations with the massive amount of advertising that will be cluttering the voters' mind space, and there are obvious challenges to getting the message out to the desired audience.
As Lawrence Lessig, arguably the country's most innovative thinker about digital communication explains, "Politics has always been about engaging people to act. But for the past 50 years the most efficient tool for engaging people to action has been broadcast media. Yet over time people grow immune. Surrounded by images pushing every passion imaginable, the only sane response is to develop increasingly thick walls to block them out. As a result, broadcast has become increasingly weak...and the weakened power of broadcast politics creates a strong incentive to develop an alternative. Enter the blog, a space where people gab. When done right -- as the Howard Dean campaign is apparently doing -- a blog is a tool for building community. A well-structured blog inspires both reading and writing. And by getting the audience to type, candidates get the audience committed. Engagement replaces reception, which in turn leads to real space action."
Whether it is the Dean campaign or the Dec. 7 house parties, one thing seems clear; MoveOn has set the standard for a new form of interactive politics in which the computer and the internet are tools in a new approach to engaging people to action. American politics will never be the same.
To find house parties in your area, visit MoveOn.org.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.