Government Technology

The New World of E-lections: Social Networking Web Sites




October 3, 2006 By

Sen. Jim Talent, one of a growing number of politicians who recognize the potential for social networking web sites.

On Facebook.com, Sen. Jim Talent reveals that his favorite actress is Reese Witherspoon and that the name of his Great Dane is Dudley. And in a video on his Web site, the Missouri Republican spends several minutes discussing the issues mentioned in his first TV ad in his campaign for re-election.

In Ohio, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has stocked his campaign Web site with video clips of speeches and TV commercials. MySpace.com and other Web sites display cyberspace bumper stickers that can be copied to promote Strickland's campaign for governor.

These candidates aren't alone. They belong to an increasing number of politicians entering the new frontier of online politics: video clips and social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

"If you think of the Internet as a city, those social networking sites are virtual town squares where people spend time, where they share ideas, show their opinion, share information," said Keith Dailey, press secretary for Strickland's campaign.

Dailey added that social networking Web sites helped "humanize the candidate." And video clips can allow an entire state of voters to watch a speech that only a select few actually see in person.

Melissa Erickson, a freshman at Missouri State University, said she had seen quite a few profiles for politicians on Facebook.com, a networking Web site geared toward college and high school students. Talent's profile was one she read.

"You learn more about what he likes and see what other people think," Erickson said. "It helps reach out to a lot of college students in a way that they can connect to."

Until recently, a candidate who had a Web site was the exception to the rule. Now, it's not uncommon to have a Web site jammed with video clips, blogs and other features designed to engage voters and communicate the campaign's core message. Social networking Web sites go a step further, providing politicians with efficient, easy ways to communicate with millions of voters in one centralized place. Many people who engage in politics online today also tend to be active with a campaign locally.

"It's an incredible tool for online organizing and particularly for cultivating your base of supporters, of any ages, really," said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director for the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.

Elaborate campaign Web sites and social networking profiles "really become the easiest way for people to get information about you, particularly as it gets closer to the election," she said.

Almost 56 million people visited MySpace.com in August, placing it among the most popular Web sites in the world, according to comScore Media Matrix, which measures Internet traffic. On Web sites such as MySpace, users post biographical information and also join groups or become "friends" with other users based on similar interests.

It's hard for politicians to ignore that sizable population, said Jeff Berman, a senior vice president for the Web site.

"We've seen more and more politicians coming online and establishing a presence," Berman said. "And that's because that's where the people are -- your voters, your donors.

"Any time there's a new and powerful way to communicate with potential voters, any politician that ignores that does so at their own peril."

Yet the potential exists that such a strategy could backfire. Other users are allowed to post comments to your site, which enables them to make inappropriate comments or statements supporting your opponent.

All it takes is one Internet user to put a video clip of your mistake on a Web site such as


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