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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Poke your president!

    It used to be the most cliched topic for an opinions column, but something is now different about Facebook: It has come of age as a political force. And it seems the excitement and energy inspired by one man – Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. – has led the way.

    Facebook received national attention over the weekend in a Saturday article in The Washington Post that illustrated Obama’s popularity in the Facebook community. A little over a month ago, the group “”Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)”” was created with the hope of finding one million members by May 10, 2007.

    As of press time, the group has surpassed 287,812 members. By contrast, the “”Against Barack Obama (One Million Strong)”” group registers a paltry membership of 301.

    Other presidential candidates are looking to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to reach out to voters, especially young voters who traditionally don’t vote in great percentages, representing an untapped electoral resource.

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has created his own profile where viewers learn that Mitt likes Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat and listens to The Eagles – and a lot of country music – in his free time.

    Romney’s profile is, of course, administered by his campaign staff. Of the 36 posted photos of Romney’s life and campaign, he seems to only interact with white people. (Note to the Romney 2008 campaign: These things can be both an asset and a liability.)

    During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democrat Howard Dean was the first major candidate to effectively leverage the Internet as a campaign tool. Dean’s surprising surge as the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination spawned the popularity for other liberal Internet communities like “”The Daily Kos”” and “”The Huffington Post,”” both liberal blogs.

    But three years later, Dean’s mastery of the Internet looks downright anachronistic in today’s political environment. Said Joe Trippi, Dean’s 2004 Internet campaign manager in the Washington Post article: “”It took our campaign six months to get 139,000 people on an e-mail list. It took one Facebook group, what, barely a month to get 200,000? That’s astronomical.””

    It sure is, Joe. Now if only all those passionate Facebook users got out the door on Election Day.

    What isn’t clear is the efficacy of Internet organizing as opposed to the physical variety. It’s easy to sit at a computer, click “”Join this group”” and feel a part of a political movement. However, it’s hard to gauge if that armchair point-and-click translates into votes at the ballot box.

    And yet, according to the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, during the 2006 midterm elections, voting turnout amongst 18 to 29-year-olds – the primary users of social networking sites – increased by 20 percent during the 2002 midterm elections.

    That kind of jump can’t be attributed solely to the political organizing occurring on Facebook, but all the same, 2006 was the first year Facebook made the elections an interactive feature for its users, sparking debate and its own unofficial Facebook poll.

    If campaigning via social networking sites is the way of the future, there is certainly room to grow. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 54 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds have used a social networking site such as Facebook, MySpace or Bebo. That’s definitely not a mature market, and with Facebook recently opening its doors to everyone comes the potential for massive growth – and massive political influence.

    Of course, as Generation Y moves (painfully) into middle age, our comfort level with social networking sites will only mean more political activity in that sphere. While campaigns are not yet decided by online popularity, 15 years hence they could.

    In the meantime, Obama’s Facebook popularity has inspired a political action committee with 80 chapters across American college campuses. The grassroots movement has organized and recruited using Facebook as its inspiration and platform.

    The lesson for 2008 presidential candidates is all too clear: Ignore social networking sites at your own peril. The Obama campaign got the message.

    Matt Stone is a senior majoring in international studies and economics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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