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Start a Nonprofit and Join Election ‘08 YouTube Free-For-All

By Sarah Lai Stirland at Wired

Welcome to the 2008 general election, YouTube style.

No sooner had the polls closed at the end of Super Tuesday, when a video popped up on YouTube attacking newly christened GOP front-runner John McCain where he’s most vulnerable: his support for the Iraq war.

The 83-second advertisement shows a consumer gamely struggling on the phone with a friendly but unhelpful service representative. It turns out to be the United States government on the line, which informs the befuddled citizen that she has no choice but to pay a hefty monthly recurring charge for the war.

“In the past couple of weeks, when it seemed like McCain may in fact be the nominee, we thought that the message should be that the deaths in Iraq may not be on the front page anymore, but the money is still coming out of your pocket,” says the spot’s creator, Robert Greenwald, a progressive activist and documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles. “I felt strongly that it was a story that wasn’t being told, and a story that couldn’t be argued against.”

Decisive moments in primaries have always triggered torrents of fresh money into campaign coffers, which eventually translate into television ads. But in this most wired of campaign seasons, a new type of Web 2.0-enhanced nonprofit advocacy group is streamlining the process like never before, producing and distributing slick, effective videos in internet time.

Thanks to converging developments in campaign finance law, the improving technology of digital cameras and the rise of online social networking, voters’ inboxes this election season will be filled at strategic moments with forwarded web addresses for issue-oriented ads like Less Jobs, More War from Greenwald’s Brave New Films.

Brave New Films often aims squarely at the presidential candidates whose policies it disagrees with. But unlike similar groups from the last election cycle, it’s registered with the IRS as a 501(c)4 — a “social welfare” organization. Such groups are allowed to engage in political campaigning, but aren’t supposed to make campaigning their primary activity. In exchange, they don’t have to disclose their donor lists, unlike the “issue advocacy” groups popular in 2004.

Those groups, called 527s, got in trouble in the last presidential election, when the Federal Election Commission fined a number of them, including MoveOn.org and the so-called Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth, for spending too much effort campaigning for or against specific candidates. The FEC hasn’t given the same attention to 501(c)(4)s, making them the preferred vehicle in 2008 for testing the limits of federal election law.

The line between issue advocacy and an effort to elect or defeat a candidate is a blurry one, and other groups have strayed even closer to it than Brave New Films, which has taken on causes unrelated to the election.

The Cincinnati-based Common Sense Issues, for example, has an ongoing “Trust Huckabee” campaign that’s aggressively campaigning for Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, using auto-dial voice-recognition response calls.

The Campaign Legal Center’s Ryan says he worries when groups register as social welfare organizations, and then use that tax designation to brazenly canvass for a candidate.

For his part, Greenwald says that his group’s financing comes from small donations solicited from the public, as well as from grants from unnamed foundations.

“I think (these spots) allow people who are talented and who have opinions to force discussions and debates that wouldn’t be had into the public,” says Cliff Schecter, a longtime progressive activist and member of the Brave New Films team, who acts as a kind of new media relations press secretary for the outfit.

The Less Jobs, More War spot is part of a series that Brave New Films plans on releasing over the next few weeks. The theme comes from one of McCain’s campaign appearances in Michigan, in which the candidate told his audience that their auto industry jobs weren’t coming back. MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough quipped that McCain “has promised less jobs and more wars. Now that’s something we can all rally behind.”

Greenwald says the video took weeks to produce, from conception to shooting. It employed two professional actors and a cameraman.

Once it was posted and tagged Tuesday night, staff at Brave New Films promoted it to high-profile blogs and sent links around in e-mail. It made the front page of the News and Politics section of YouTube, and picked up its own traction. Jim Gilliam, Brave New Films’ vice president of media and strategy, says that process is standard operating procedure for the promotion of its videos.

One of the keys to the campaign will be to tie the theme of the video to keywords being used by the presidential candidates and in the political blogosphere, Gilliam says.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Brave New Films’ online guerrilla spots is the counternarrative they provide to the talking points and themes floated by the candidates and the Republican party itself. The cost-to-taxpayers trope of “Less Jobs, More War,” for example, is a Bizzaro-world twin to video messages that the Republican National Committee has been releasing in recent weeks that frame Democrats as untrustworthy, taxing “liberals” who would pile on the national debt.

“Our whole mission in life is to tell stories with video, whether it’s two minutes or two hours,” Greenwald says. “The distribution mechanism may vary, whether it’s DVD or RSS feed, but the common denominator is that we’re telling stories about issues.”