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The Colbert Clan: 1.2 Million Strong and Counting

Colbert is a South Carolina crowd favorite. (AP).

Twelve days ago, while introducing the new Facebook group "1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T. Colbert," The Trail noted that its creator, Raj Vachhani, didn't include a photo in his Facebook profile. That's a very sketchy thing to do on Facebooksphere -- akin to going to a meet-and-greet party with a big, scary mask on.

Vachhani has now corrected his oversight, he said in a phone interview. Vachhani, it turns out, is 16, a junior at Loveless Academic Magnet Program High School in Montgomery, Ala. and, not surprisingly, a fan of Colbert's Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report." "It's where I get most of my news," he said.

The political blogosphere has been buzzing about the meaning of Vachhani's Facebook group, which is by far the biggest political group on the site. Within hours of its launch, it had 16,000 members and hit the 500,000 mark by Oct. 23. It reached its target of 1 million three days later and now has more than 1.2 million members.

Each of the presidential candidates have their own profile on Facebook, the social networking site of the moment. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has 158,000 supporters on his page, tops among the Democratic candidates, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), the online star of the Republican field, has 34,000. There are also dozens of pro-candidate and anti-candidate groups. The most popular pro group, "Barack Obama: (One Million Strong for Barack)," has 392,000 members and was created by 26-year-old Farouk Olu Aregbe. Stephen DeMaura, 22, founded the largest anti group, "Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary)," which lists 514,000 members.

But Vachhani's Colbert group beats them all.

"At a political level, comparing Mr. Obama and Mr. Colbert is patently unfair. To join Mr. Obama's group ... requires an explicit statement of political beliefs. Joining Mr. Cobert's group signals that you're a fan of his hilarious TV personality. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this -- but to comapre Obama and Colbert is truly to compare apples and oranges," Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, blogged Monday on TechPresident, the hub of online presidential campaigning.

Added George Washington University's Michael Cornfield, who teaches about political strategy and message development: "Colbert is entertainment and entertainment always outrates politics. People want to be entertained. That's all this means."

Well, maybe.

Facebook has gotten increasingly political in recent months -- and why not? YouTube has its CNN/YouTube debates, and MySpace has partnered with MTV for its live instant messaging forums. Earlier this month, Facebook -- with more than 44 million members, the core group being high school and college age students -- hosted two two-hour seminars for congressional and campaign staffers in Capitol Hill.

On the political Facebooksphere, the key is personalization and activism, both online and off. Facebookers can add a candidate as a "friend" and stay virtually connected to that candidate's campaign, and they can also add more than 190 political applications -- like a 2008 voter registration form -- to their profiles. The most political Facebook profiles show an engaged, involved, informed electorate who share the news articles they read and urge friends to join them in political groups. As Colbert's Facebook group shows, these members tend to get a lot of their news from "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report": funny, satiric newscasts that skewer the hypocrisy of politicians and talk about "truthiness" in these spin-cycling times.

Obama himself said in yesterday's MTV/MySpace forum that the popularity of Colbert and his show is an indictment of the mainstream news media and highlights the public's distrust of such news outlets.

Meanwhile, the whole Colbert-as-president saga -- a native son of South Carolina, he is running both as a Republican and Democrat in the Palmetto State -- is playing out to be a show within a show, politics as theater, Comedy Central style. The popularity of his Colbert Facebook group, Vachhani says, shows how trusted the fake newscaster is. He may be a comedian, Vachhani explains, but he was "ballsy enough" and "gutsy enough" to make fun of White House reporters during the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in 2006.

Vachhani's Facebook group has spawned others, including a District-based group simply called "Stephen Colbert for President!" It has 68 members, at least as of Monday night. Among them is 25-year-old Sara Frances Culp.

Why did she join the group?

"Primary because I love Colbert (and Stewart!), but also because I am so impressed at the lengths to which he has successfully gone -- and will hopefully continue to go -- to prove just how ridiculously ironic the world actually is (Press Corps Dinner, anyone?)," Culp wrote to us in a Facebook message. "Also, I love how much he has done to prove how much can actually be accomplished by the people the 'important people' don't pay attention to -- namely, those who understand that the 'Internets' aren't just a series of tubes."

For Colbert, it's a very good show, and at least 1.2 million people are laughing.

-- Jose Antonio Vargas

By Post Editor  |  October 30, 2007; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , New Media  
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