“Friends Of Hamas” And Why The GOP Can't Win The Internet

If you want to appreciate how vast the digital divide is that historically separates conservative failures and liberal accomplishments online, and if you want to add some context to the recent New York Times Magazine feature article on how Republicans' chronic online shortcomings dim the party's electoral chances, just look at how the two camps were marking their time in recent days.

Working with Republicans on Capitol Hill trying to block Chuck Hagel's nomination to become Secretary of Defense, Breitbart's Ben Shapiro recently posted a report suggesting Hagel had allegedly received “foreign funding” over the years from a terrorist-friendly group called Friends of Hamas, but that the payments were being kept secret. The allegation served as part of the right wing's relentless campaign to smear Hagel as being anti-Israel.

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy, and AM talker Hugh Hewitt all hyped Breitbart's  conspiratorial narrative about Hagel's nefarious connections with Friends of Hamas.

Slight problem. Last week, Slate's David Weigel detailed how Friends of Hamas doesn't actually exist. And as New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman explained, he unwittingly started the Friends of Hamas rumor when he posed the Hagel question to a GOP aide in the form of “an obvious joke.” According to Friedman, he asked about both Friends of Hamas and the “Junior League of Hezbollah,” and thought that the “names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically.”

The GOP aide then apparently shared the Friends of Hamas inquiry with other partisans and Friedman posits that from there it found its way to Breitbart, which published it in the form of “news” under Shapiro's byline. Tellingly, the fact that the scary sounding group doesn't exist didn't stop a right-wing site from pushing the tall tale; a tale that quickly ricocheted across the conservative media landscape and was touted as a Deeply Troubling Development.

It was against that backdrop of routine right-wing dysfunction that the Times published its lengthy article. Author Robert Draper argued -- and many Republican operatives agreed -- that the GOP's perennial online failures have made it almost impossible for the party to communicate effectively with younger voters; voters who have developed a deeply hostile perception of the GOP brand. (i.e. “Polarizing,” “narrow-minded.”) Draper didn't make reference to the Friends of Hamas debacle, but it could have served as a useful example of how routinely unserious online pursuits have become among Republican boosters.

By comparison, note Monday's news that left-leaning Mother Jones won a prestigious Polk Award for the big campaign scoop David Corn posted online last September about how Mitt Romney, while addressing wealthy donors, disparaged “47 percent” of Americans who “believe they are victims.”  The blockbuster report, complete with an undercover video, was the fruit of a month's worth of digging by Corn.

The Friends of Hamas farce, coupled with the Polk Award, represent useful bookends when measuring the widening gulf that separates liberals and conservatives online, and how one side has completely lapped the other. (Seven years after its launch, players are still trying to create the “conservative Huffington Post.”)

I realize the Times piece focused on “the Republican Party's technological deficiencies,”  the lopsided battle for a social media edge, revolutionary campaign software, and how senior Republicans are still reluctant to even engage via Twitter. The piece cast a spotlight on how information, and better information, is shared faster and more widely among liberals than it is among conservatives.

But you can't really take what the right-wing media, and specifically bloggers, are doing online and separate that from the GOP's chronic, failed  attempts to use the Internet to win elections and bolster its brand. The two are permanently attached.

The truth is, liberals for years bemoaned the fact that conservatives dominated talk radio and there seemed to be something in the DNA of liberal listeners that prevented them from tuning in to like-minded radio hosts endlessly, week after week and year after year. With the Internet, the tables have been turned. Conservatives scratch their heads trying to understand the chasm and why there seems to be a natural disposition on the left to embrace the nonhierarchical style of the Web and turn it into an oversize organizing tool, while so many Republicans simply demurred.

Or worse, they have helped turn the Web into the conservative house of mirrors, as represented by the comically awful and dishonest Friends of Hamas failure.

And talk about déjà vu.

Describing how badly Democrats are outclassing them online, a Republican operative told the Times, “They were playing chess while we were playing checkers.”

Sound familiar? It should. “For the most part Republicans are stuck in Internet circa 2000.” That's how a GOP aide turned blogger described the party's dire problem to the Washington Post in 2007. That same year, a Weekly Standard writer bemoaned, “We're losing the Web right now.”

Not much has changed since then. In fact, according to the Times piece things may have gotten worse for Republicans over the last four years, as Mitt Romney's social media thumping proved. (i.e. 12 million Facebook friends registered for Romney vs. 33 million for Obama.) And specifically, the GOP now faces a grave danger in term of reaching and persuading young voters, who electorally appear to be verging on a generational lost cause for Republicans.

Frustrated GOP activists told the Times that the party's corporate rigidity was to blame for the lack of online innovation and success, and that conservative techies are too focused on making money and not devoted enough to helping grow the cause.  

After reading the Times article, Salon's Andrew Leonard noted a different reason for endless GOP stumbles in the face of Democratic successes [emphasis added]:

What's really happening is that Democrats have grasped a fundamental attribute of the digital age -- information is easy to share -- and have understood that the best way to take advantage of this special quality is set up a structure in which “smart people” are allowed to operate freely in an environment where information flows fluidly.

Note the significance of “smart people.” And just as importantly, I'd suggest, are serious people. Today online, conservatives often lack both.

Just ask Friends of Hamas.