Some bloggers are using the social media tactics that President Obama has long promoted against him as they protest his proposed rule to overturn conscience protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in controversial medical procedures.
"Obama obviously has championed social media for his purposes. ... We are trying to take a lesson from his toolbox and engage in that as well," said Charlotte Davis, director of strategic operations at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
Obama's proposed regulation would rescind a Bush administration rulethat prohibits federal funds from going to health care providers that force workers to deliver services they find religiously or morally objectionable, including abortion and sterilization. The rule took effect Jan. 20.
Heritage has created a Web site, ADoctorsRight.com, with an online form letter of disapproval that visitors can modify and submit directly to the public docket by hitting "Send." The deadline for commenting on Obama's reversal is Thursday.
Davis said the official Web site for submitting comments electronically, Regulations.gov, is hard to navigate. "If you go to Regulations.gov, that Web site is inherently confusing. It's a travesty, really," she said. "We have set up a system where [citizens] don't have to worry about remembering the docket number."
Heritage sent an e-mail blast to its 425,000 members in early April that contained a link to ADoctorsRight.com and a description of the rule's alleged consequences. On April 7, a similar message went out to select bloggers.
The e-mail read: "Health care providers have been fired and denied opportunities because of their desire to not participate in procedures, such as abortions, that violate their consciences.... Will you help us reach 10,000 comments by April 9? Anything you could do to spread the word about ADoctorsRight.com would be appreciated -- blogging, posting a link on Facebook, or sending a message on Twitter."
As of April 8, 10,499 comments had been posted on the site.
E-democracy proponents view this Web-roots effort as a natural extension of the type of civic activity the president wants his administration to facilitate. The day after he was inaugurated, Obama released a memo calling for the administration to establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration in government.
"I don't think Obama was planning on using these tools -- the openness that the Internet provides -- and then excluding dissent," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the TechPresident blog and the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on how technology is changing politics. "I think his intention is to open up the process and to create as many feedback channels and opportunities as possible. The weaponry of Internet persuasion is not exclusive to the Obama administration."
Whether the strategy effects change depends on how many people these groups are able to mobilize, how much pressure they can bring to bear on the decision-making process and whether supporters of Obama's proposal are mounting their own grass-roots campaign, Rasiej said.
The National Partnership for Women and Families has created a Web page similar to the Heritage site that allows supporters to directly submit messages advocating the repeal of the conscience regulation. As of late afternoon Wednesday, the page had transmitted 15,686 comments in support of the reversal. The partnership e-mailed 100,000 of its advocates to alert them about the issue and page.
Opponents of the Obama rule "may not be able to win the battle, but by organizing online and catching up to the progressives who have already learned this technique, their hope should be that they might win the war," Rasiej said.
"The technology doesn't have a point of view," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "While progressives have been quicker in recognizing the power of these new tools, it's not surprising that conservatives would be quick to use them, too. It's still an open question on whether they will be successful."