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Making Campaign ‘Friends’

Libby Nelson

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By Libby NelsonThe Daily Northwestern

When David Liebow reached out to find others who share his political beliefs, he didn’t realize how far his message would carry.

Liebow comes from a political family: His mother, Tina Liebling, was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2004 and 2006, and his father, Mark Liebow, was her campaign manager.

But the University of Minnesota junior took a different route than his parents to become politically involved. He created a Facebook group.

The group, “Americans for Alternative Energy,” now has more than 100,000 members – among them Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and former Sen. John Edwards.

Liebow is on the cutting edge. In the months before the 2004 presidential election, Facebook.com was a startup Web site connecting students from select, and mainly Ivy League, universities.

Now the social networking site’s more than 21 million members can use the site to display their support for politicians next to their Greek letters and favorite songs. Facebook’s networking capabilities have helped it emerge as a campaigning tool and one key to capturing and keeping younger voters, some strategists say.

“If you ignore social networking sites, you are going to lose the young vote,” said Joshua Levy, an associate editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, whose TechPresident blog tracks the use of the Internet for politics.

Some students say they find it a bit odd to “poke” politicians, view Sen. John McCain’s status and read Clinton’s notes, but it hasn’t stopped thousands from becoming online supporters.

“I’m writing on Barack Obama’s profile page on Facebook?” one user posted on the Illinois senator and presidential contender’s wall. “What has this world come to?”

“Facebooking the Vote”

During last year’s congressional elections, Facebook created 1,400 profile pages for candidates in Senate, House and gubernatorial elections. More than 400 politicians used the profiles, Facebook spokeswoman Meredith Chin wrote in an e-mail.

Members could choose to “vote” for candidates they supported by listing them on their profiles.

This technique would have been almost impossible during the 2004 elections, said Jared Goldberg-Leopold, Medill ’05, a political consultant in Washington.

Goldberg-Leopold, a former Daily city desk editor, joined Facebook when it opened to NU in April 2004, not long before he began working for Senate Democratic candidate Rep. Joe Hoeffel’s campaign.

“I didn’t even think about merging the two worlds,” said Goldberg-Leopold, who has been working on political campaigns since 2002. “If I were smarter, I probably would have come up with that idea. I just thought (Facebook) was something for college kids.”

The move to Facebook campaigns logically followed the influences of blogging and other social networking Web sites, such as Meetup.com, during the 2004 election, Levy said.

“A lot of those things that were just being born at that time are coming to fruition now,” Levy said. “Blogging is almost old school. Old people do blogging.”

After Election Day, Facebook posted the results of a “vote” it conducted among its members to compare to national returns. The online results mirrored the actual winners in nine of 12 nationally watched races as well as the election for Illinois governor and 14 of the state’s 18 congressional races.

Christine Williams, a government professor at Bentley College in the Boston area, tracked Facebook’s election data during the 2006 campaigns, finding that Facebook played a role in members’ preferences.

Kinky Friedman, an independent running for governor of Texas, won less than 20 percent of the vote among all voters, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, Williams said.

But among Facebook supporters, he received 67 percent of the vote “just because he was interesting,” she said.

The strategy didn’t work as well for 9th District House of Representatives candidate Michael Shannon, a Republican who lost his challenge to incumbent U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston).

Shannon refused to accept campaign contributions, but he did join Facebook and create a group, “The unRepublicans,” protesting the lack of representation for young people in either major party.

But he received only 13 percent of the Facebook vote – far less than the 25 percent he won in the actual election.

So does having a Facebook profile actually help?

“In a close election, it might give you an edge,” Williams said.

Poking John Edwards

Facebook is bringing back its election feature for 2008 “in the near future” and soon will group politicians together and offer sub-categories for major 2008 races, Chin said.

But many candidates have a head start: Obama, Clinton, Edwards, McCain and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have already created profiles, leaving former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as the only early leader without one.

To appeal to students, tone is key, said Kat Barr, the research director of Young Voter Strategies, a project of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“The best thing that a campaign can do is have a young staff person … create the pages and update them and engage other young people,” Barr said.

Christopher Kriva, who served as co-president of NU Students for Obama in 2004, said a poorly managed Facebook profile could be a risk.

“If you see an elderly candidate that doesn’t have the best reputation for being plugged in, it can come off as kind of disingenuous and pandering,” said Kriva, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Medill in 2006.

What candidates offer about themselves varies. Clinton does not list favorite books, music or activities, but offers a brief biography of herself – and a recent wall post from fellow Facebook member and husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Romney is the only candidate to post his political views, declaring himself a conservative. None of the six leading candidates use the space to explain a platform. Instead, the profiles are restricted to trivia and a few broad vision statements.

The profiles might be superficial, but they follow personality-driven TV ads and offer an interactive component, TechPresident’s Levy said.

“People have the opportunity to read about issues that they think are important, and then they can go elsewhere and make connections online instead of just watching TV,” Levy said.

On Facebook, candidates are most clearly distinguishable by their level of support: Obama, with more than 67,000 supporters, has more than the other four candidates with profiles combined.

Some candidates’ profiles either “take off,” like Obama’s, or stagnate without attracting attention, Levy said.

“The majority of activity online has been for the Democrats, but it’s not entirely clear why,” Levy said.

One possible explanation is the age group Facebook targets. During the 2006 elections, 18- to 29-year-olds voted almost 2 to 1 for Democrats, according to statistics from the National Election Pool. In 2004, 18- to 24-year-olds were the age group most likely to support Sen. John Kerry over President George W. Bush.

One Million Strong

The big question as Facebook gets involved with elections, Williams said, is whether a member who joins a group to support a candidate is willing to go door-to-door as a volunteer.

So far, Levy said, Facebook activism has stayed on Facebook – with a few exceptions.

“Students for Barack Obama,” a group created by Bowdoin College junior Meredith Segal during summer 2006, originally was intended to petition Obama to run for president.

In less than a year, it has become a political action committee and a national movement with chapters on more than 200 campuses. Segal is the committee’s executive director.

The group has staged rallies at campuses around the country, including one at George
Mason University in February that Obama attended.

Williams and Levy said more groups might not have followed Segal’s example because, unlike Web sites like Meetup.com that helped organize Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, Facebook does not have a built-in function to get users together in person.

“The whole idea of Meetup was that you would then get together offline on a regular basis with these people to do traditional campaign activities, writing letters, that sort of stuff,” Williams said. “So far, Facebook doesn’t have that kind of a piece to it.”

During the 2006 elections, Facebook offered users a chance to register to vote through a partnership with Rock the Vote, an organization that encourages young people to be active in politics.

Though Facebook spokeswoman Chin said data is unavailable for how many users registered through Facebook, Rock the Vote registered 1.2 million people during the 2006 campaign.

Communication Prof. Eszter Hargittai, who studies Internet use, said it is hard to tell whether a Web site such as Facebook might make young people more politically active offline.

“You have to counter the fact that already people had different levels of political engagement before the Internet,” Hargittai said. “It certainly allows for a conversation. People in marginalized positions get together and find a voice.”

Music junior Samara Pals, who worked with the Illinois Republican Party as an executive assistant last summer, said Facebook is an effective way for candidates to reach young voters.

“It’s a really good idea to use every possible resource,” Pals said. “It’s a very smart thing to do to get the word out and raise awareness.”

But students are also using it to reach other student supporters. Kriva, who organized NU student supporters for Obama in 2004, said he used a listserv to organize what became the state’s largest student group for the candidate.

Now the president of the University of Michigan chapter of Law Students for Obama and working with the national group, Kriva said Facebook makes it easier to find students interested in a candidate, but not those who might want to do more.

Medill sophomore Hope Evans, who is organizing the NU chapter of Students for Edwards, said she plans to combine Facebook messaging with fliering and e-mail to persuade students to vote.

“I’m not sure how effective it is, but the way you target young people is to reach them on their level,” she said. “Any dialogue you get is good, even if it’s just a Facebook wall post.”

Levy said groups also allow that dialogue to be shared quickly, as students see what groups their friends are joining and what others are saying about the candidates.

“It becomes a very viral thing very quickly,” he said. “The same thing doesn’t happen on MySpace.”

The value of ground troops

The other big question heading into 2008 is how to translate Facebook friends into votes. A candidates’ popularity on social networking Web sites means little in terms of overall voters, Levy said.

For example, McCain, who has fewer than one-third the number of Facebook friends that Romney has, led him by 10 percentage points in an April 23 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Candidates also find themselves with other online problems, such as a lack of control over what other members might post. Most profiles have at least one negative or obscene comment.

“The Internet is two-way communication as opposed to just releasing a press release,” Goldberg-Leopold said. “You put yourself out on Facebook and people post on your wall and you don’t know what they’re going to say. Politicians need to be aware of that.”

It also raises issues of authenticity. While Facebook clearly distinguishes politicians’ profiles, there are 18 profiles for George W. Bush on Facebook – though only one each for the current candidates. To prevent fraud, Facebook provides login names and passwords to national parties and candidates that request them.

Relying too much on Facebook to campaign is another risk. While Facebook may enable candidates to connect more easily with a younger audience, Barr, of Young Voter Strategies, said candidates should not think it will replace older techniques of reaching out.

“It’s a combination of (Facebook) plus the on-the-ground, person-to-person outreach, plus talking about issues that young people care about,” she said.

But Facebook’s real power might not lie in convincing students to vote for a candidate so much as in convincing them simply to vote. Liebow, who runs the group “Americans for Alternative Energy,” said Facebook’s power lies in engaging college students in politics.

“We’re a generation that has been noted in the past for its political apathy, and anything that changes that, I think, is a good thing,” he said.

Reach Libby Nelson at libbynelson@northwestern.edu.

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