Tuesday, October 10, 2006
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)
WASHINGTON — 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.
Screenshot from Sen. Jim Talent's Facebook page.
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 YouTube.com, which had more than 19 million visitors in August.
For the candidate, that multiplies the headache.
"Used to be, it'd be on the nightly news one night and it would just be over with after that," said John deTar, co-founder of a new networking and discussion site called hotsoup.com, set to make its debut this month. "Today, it's a viral effect. It's around the world overnight."
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., just recently fell victim to the effects of YouTube. Allen used the word "macaca" several times to refer to an opponent's campaign worker of Asian Indian descent. It's a term for a genus of monkeys, and some consider it a racial insult.
Video clips of Allen's comments at the campaign stop hit YouTube.com. The original video alone has been seen more than 237,000 times on YouTube, and outside Web sites that posted the video have accounted for 34,000 more views of the YouTube clip. The video clip eventually made news shows on network and cable TV, as well as popular Comedy Central programs. Allen apologized for weeks after the remarks.
Despite the potential pitfalls, Jeff Smith, a St. Louis Democrat, didn't hesitate. In August, he won his party's primary for state Senate and is unopposed in November's election.
Smith's campaign staffers established profiles for him on MySpace.com and Facebook.com, and created campaign video clips to be posted on the campaign Web site and e-mailed to supporters. Smith said the Internet was "integral" to the campaign, as was the ability to reach a "universe of voters" through social networking Web sites.
"I think you've got to take the risk," Smith said. "The potential to expand your network is too great to ignore."
Yet Smith is more an aberration than the norm in Missouri. None of the 18 major-party candidates in the nine races for the U.S. House has a profile on MySpace.com. Of that same group, 16 have something on Facebook.com, but only three of those 16 have anything under the "information" section of the site.
It's a slightly different story in Missouri's most prominent race: the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Talent. His Democratic challenger, state Auditor Claire McCaskill, also has video clips of campaign stops, speeches, TV commercials, testimonials and appearances on TV shows.
Unlike Talent, she doesn't have official profiles on any social networking Web site, although supporters have posted one on Facebook. It's not uncommon for voters who support _ or oppose _ a campaign to create fake profiles for candidates.
Both campaigns said they handled many video and social networking capabilities in-house, rather than using outside Web sites. Doing so ensures that the campaign can fully control its message, said Adrianne Marsh, McCaskill's press secretary.
"You have to be careful with your involvement with anything that isn't more or less under your control, because there is an element where that can get beyond what the campaign's able to control, and that creates vulnerabilities," Marsh said. The campaign decided it would be much safer to try and "drive the same kind of activity out of our own Web site," she said.
If a candidate remains committed to social networking Web sites throughout a campaign, they'll reap the benefits of using that Internet tool, said Jack Cardotti, spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party.
But you can't create "a MySpace (account) and not monitor it, because people can, do and will get on there and put inappropriate things on there," Cardotti said. "We advise our candidates: You should either jump into this lake or stay out of it altogether, because you can't go in with just one toe in the water."
That's not to say that social networking sites and video sites don't have a place in politics.
"What we're talking about today will be commonplace in an election cycle or two from now," Cardotti said. "It will be the expectation" to be involved with those Web sites.
For the 2006 campaign season, social networking Web sites and video clips still represent somewhat uncharted territory. What's certain, though, is that the November elections will prove the mettle of such tools, Marsh said.
"It could potentially show that these things are very valuable, or that that the buzz isn't exactly what we expected it to be," she said. "This will be the test to see what these kinds of tools can provide in terms of campaign energy."
(c) 2006, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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