Sunday, February 15, 2009

Facebook and Local Politics

A lot’s been written about national politics and the Facebook generation. President Obama used the internet to organize his supporters in ways never before practiced in a national campaign.

Presidential campaigns are often the proving ground for new political techniques and technologies. But Facebook and other internet tools are also changing politics at a more local level.

San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio recently invited me to be his “friend” on Facebook. I’ve never met Councilmember DeMaio, so we’re not friends in real life. And we’re relatively apart on the political spectrum. (Note that I’m friends with people I disagree with, both in real life and on Facebook. Maybe DeMaio is lots of fun to hang out with and someday we’ll be fast friends, but at the moment, we’re not).

I denied his invitation.

But maybe I should have accepted it. Another progressive Democrat I know accepted DeMaio’s invitation and discovered that the councilmember posted some of his policy ideas through his Facebook profile. The Democrat used Facebook to comment on the policy and thereby directly communicated with an elected representative in City government.

I’ve had a similar experience. In September of 2007, I received a Facebook friend request from California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Before accepting the request, I sent a message in response, asking who I knew on the other end of that Facebook account. Previously, the Facebook requests I had received from political figures were all made by friends of mine from the California Young Democrats, who were managing some elected official’s Facebook account.

The response from Secretary Bowen’s account was in the first person, and it said something like “We haven’t met personally yet, but we have a lot of mutual friends in the California Young Democrats, and your friend [so and so] used to work for my Senate office.”

I very nearly responded with a snarky reply about not breaking character. I was in Sacramento at the time, taking a post-bar exam trip up and down California, reacquainting myself with old friends that I hadn’t seen much during my 3 years in law school at NYU. Coincidentally, I had lunch plans the next day with the very same mutual friend who was once worked for Bowen’s Senate office. At lunch it was explained to me that Bowen actually managed her own Facebook account. I was relieved that I had kept my snark under control.

Not only did I accept Bowen’s friend request, but I responded with an invitation for her to speak to the members of the San Diego lawyers chapter of the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal group I helped found after returning to San Diego. Through Facebook, Bowen connected me to her staff scheduler, and in March, she visited our chapter and gave a terrific presentation about protecting voting rights. During her presentation, Bowen mentioned that a few days earlier, someone had used Facebook to report a violation of California’s elections regulations, and that she had directed her staff to investigate the matter.

Both the DeMaio and Bowen examples show how Facebook, and similar tools, can help connect policymakers to the people they serve. Not every elected official can manage their own Facebook profile, but this sort of technology allows alternatives to the staff-insulated communications bubble in which so many politicians live. Even Barack Obama fought to keep his Blackberry, so that he could have connections to the world by means other than his White House staff.

Savvy candidates are following the Obama model and preparing vast, internet-based campaigns. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is currently on a campaign to raise 30,000 online Facebook supporters in 30 days for his gubernatorial bid. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, about 400 people are joining each day. Newsom’s nearest rival for the governorship, at least in the Facebook Primary, is Attorney General Jerry Brown, with a mere 700 Facebook supporters. Newsom supporters can sign up by visiting the Mayor’s Facebook page. (Full disclosure: I am an avowed Newsom fan).

Programs like Facebook allow campaigns to show off their supporters in a very public fashion. Facebook users see news feed stories when their friends become supporters of candidates. When the Newsom campaign announced a planned visit to San Diego next month, they posted an “event” listing on Facebook. Not only does this provide logistical information about when and where the event will take place, but Facebook users can see that over 100 people are planning to attend, and which of their friends will be there. (Again, full disclosure: I invited over half of the 600 people currently listed in the event, but I only invited about 30 of the 100 or so people who’ve RSVP’d as planning to attend.)

Some local political organizations are seeing Facebook as a preferred method of organizing, supplanting more traditional options like email listservs and standalone web pages. The UCSD student group supporting Barack Obama’s presidential bid was organized entirely through a Facebook page. Emails announcing meetings and political actions were sent via Facebook message.

Facebook has an advantage for political organizers because people can see when their friends join a group, which can encourage them to join it too. There’s a potential for a snowball effect. No one knows when you add your email address to a non-Facebook listserv, like by providing an email address on the web page of a political campaign or organization.

The San Diego County Young Democrats have recognized the advantage of maintaining communications with members of their Facebook group, who might not have provided the organization with an email address to receive their weekly email newsletter. Now, the general email newsletter is routinely copied into a separate message to all the members of the local Young Democrats Facebook group. While a lot of people receive the messages twice, young people are increasingly tolerant of superfluous electronic communications.

There’s no doubt that the internet is changing politics and organizing. Not only did the internet bolster Obama’s presidential campaign, but it’s changing how things are done right here in San Diego. I’ve identified some of the recent local trends, but I’m sure there are others. If you have other examples of how the internet has changed the poltical scene in San Diego, please share them in the comments.

UPDATE (3/19/2009): I got a new Facebook request from Carl DeMaio. This time I accepted. We'll see how it goes!

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