Ron Paul's pointless Internet presidency

Ron Paul has about as many votes in this year’s GOP primaries as he has Facebook fans – is his fierce online following that much less relevant than it appears?

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

Four years ago, the shrewdest presidential candidates used YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and a dash of Twitter. They also tried to gain a strange new psychic edge called—in the contrived conceit of the day—"mindshare in the blogosphere." Apps were nowhere in campaign strategies. The iPhone was new. The iPad didn't exist.

So who e-campaigned best last time? During Super Tuesday week in 2008, Garlik, a British firm that monitors digital reputations, ranked the day's presidential candidates by online popularity. It didn't take Nate Silver or that Zogby person to call the winner. If you hung around social media even a little, you knew the fix was in.

It wasn't Hillary Clinton. Nor Mitt Romney, John McCain or Barack Obama. Blowing them all away—sealing for himself, in fact, the Presidency of the United Cyberstates of Digital America, commander-in-chief of the Information-Wants-To-Be-Free World—was, naturally, Congressman Ronald Ernest "Ron" Paul.

Ron Paul, President of the Internet! Hail to the online chief! Four more years!

Ron Paul. Elfin ob-gyn goldbug. Ayn Randian. Foe of war, abortion and government. Texan. Rejector of Medicaid, rejector of Medicare. Climate-change skeptic. Keeper of odd company. Espouser of tendentious views.

In 2012, he's still kicking back in the Online Oval Office. Ron Paul, commanding the mad and visible support of somebody. Sure he doesn't fare so well with actual flesh-and-blood voters of majority age who are motivated to drive gas-burning cars and appear with their laminated IDs at three-dimensional voting booths. But you can't have everything.

Big online, small in the real world?

Tim Hwang, a researcher of online movements and memes and the managing director of the Web Ecology Project, says that Ron Paul illustrates a fact we often overlook: "The Internet is not coterminous with the real world." He told me by email, "Like in a rearview mirror communities can be smaller than they appear on the Internet: discussion is often subject to parties who are loudest and can rally the most participants to appear online and participate at that specific moment."

This time around, for Paul, the Internet rally seems to have been sound and fury signifying little.Paul's big hopes for Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota were dashed on Super Tuesday, and he has yet to score a victory in a single contest in this election.

However, he's still logging mindshare in the blogosphere.

So how does he do it? Paul, for all his flat, engineer-like charisma, hardly seems like a Julian Assange mastermind, able to bend the Internet to his Machiavellian hacker will. Instead, it seems the President of the Internet just got lucky.

"I was on YouTube looking for some sort of guitar video or something," an ardent supporter of Ron Paul told PBS a while back, by way of explaining how he came to his candidate years ago. He had stumbled on a Paul propaganda video: "Ron Paul: A New Hope." "He was just speaking truth," concluded the guiter-vid-hunter. A Paulian was born.

And then: lots more Paulians were born. Pop pop pop—everyone on the Web was for Ron Paul! Or so it seemed. They all seemed to have those punk RE/ EVOL /UTION stencils and theories about fiat money. And if a blogger in those days dared to criticize Congressman Paul for, say, taking money from card-carrying neo-Nazis or claiming authorship of a newsletter that talked smack about, oh, black people ("I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in [Washington, D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal") she was roundly creamed by organized commenters.

I know, because this happened to me. I'd give a link to my interrogation of the Paul scene from the waning days of 2007, but it doesn't exist. My editor at the New York Times fully expunged the record after hundreds of Paulians swarmed the site—like bacteria or antibodies—and sowed the comments section with vitriol.

The complete retraction delighted the Paulians. And to their credit, Paulians can bring the bombast. Lew Rockwell, the "anti-state, anti-war, pro-market" blogger wrote ominously at the time: "Those who smear Ron Paul will live to regret it." He went on: "MSM, here are the new rules: no lying, no ridiculing, no suppressing. Remember 'journalistic ethics'? You really have no choice. The Internet rules."

A victory for Ron Paul would be a victory for the Internet, then, and in theory that victory would be a victory for people—anti-statist, libertarian people, the normal kind who have grave doubts about paper money and spooky conceptions of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Support is limited, but organic and real

The grassroots support Paul lavishly enjoys is either illusory—"astroturfing" by a campaign determined to make its marketing initiatives seem organic—or real.

Most observers feel it is real, as far as it goes. Hwang doesn't believe the campaign is funded well enough even to seed all the user-generated Paul propaganda that's out there.

Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham legal scholar who organized Howard Dean's online campaign, has said that where most campaigns make "Stepford" Web sites that aim to control a candidate's brand, as Coke or Apple would, Ron Paul's sites, many of them made by fans and not PR firms, look like places where anyone can belong and contribute.

Paulians, Teachout says, do not endeavor to meet the candidate, which would be costly for the campaign. Instead, they content themselves with meeting one another—online and in live meetups. Thus convened, they figure out clever ways to engineer shows of online force.

Some of Paul's most ardent supporters are sui generis, including Trevor Lyman, an Internet music entrepreneur and Ron Paul superfan. In 2008, Lyman abandoned a lifetime of political apathy to throw in with Paul, whose opposition to the war in Iraq appealed to him.

Though he's now not on the campaign's payroll, and has had very limited contact with the candidate—no tete-a-tete flights in Gulfstreams to discuss pet issues—Lyman is credited with having staged the campaign's biggest fundraising initiatives (many of them Internet-driven "moneybombs"). He also co-owns a for-profit company that flies blimp advertising Ron Paul for President in 2012. Giving money to Lyman's company is one way for donors to do an end-run around the federal contribution limit of $2,500, per election, to a candidate.

Getting around limitations imposed by government or big business is second nature to digital natives like Lyman who are the right age to have grown up getting music and movies from Napster and BitTorrent. Ron Paul's politics are a natural fit with the frontiersman ideology that drives longtime users of the Internet—especially the pure-hearted ones, trained in the 1990s, who can code, develop online projects, create and curate user-generated content and start digital initiatives. They also happen to be the ones who don't expect money for their labors.

For now, they have only one problem as a support base. There are not enough of them. Ron Paul has about 900,000 Facebook likers, almost precisely the number of votes for Paul in this election, which he is not—you heard it here first—going to win.

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