A Vote for MySpace

As elections near, some candidates are elbowing for room on social networks. They should proceed with caution

Allan Lichtman isn't your typical MySpace user. His page on the popular social networking site is quite tidy. The text is legible and employs correct spelling and grammar. No musical gigs or rock bands to promote or photos he wouldn't want his parents to see. Lichtman, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate in Maryland, and he's hoping the exposure among younger voters will give him an edge.

Even as some politicians rail against MySpace and networks like it, proposing laws designed to protect underage users from what they consider harmful material (see BW Online, 05/12/06, "No Space for MySpace"), some are embracing social networks. In sites like MySpace and Facebook.com, some would-be office holders see an inexpensive way to reach young people in a space where they're spending large lots of time, posting profiles and photos, blogging, and making connections with friends.

Harnessing information technology -- specifically the power of the Internet -- is a well-worn path for candidates in an election year. In the 2004 Democratic primaries the social network Meetup.com was a key component of Howard Dean's bid for the presidency.


  A history professor at American University, Lichtman has positioned himself against what he refers to as moneyed, Establishment politicians, including those in his own party. It's a stance that complements MySpace's vaguely rebellious image. Young people "have communities that were totally unheard of in my generation," Lichtman says. "That's the political future."

In the several months since he posted the site, Lichtman has amassed more than 2,700 "friends," or users willing to associate themselves with the profile. In the social networking sphere, as in elections, you need all the "friends" you can get. By comparison, an unofficial site dedicated to Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has about 4,700 friends. The profile isn't endorsed by Obama's office. Lichtman has also set up a less active profile on the collegiate social network Facebook.

In an effort to appeal to "edgy" MySpace users, Lichtman has a commercial on the site that shows him jumping, fully clothed, into a body of water, a metaphor for the "big splash" he hopes to make in Washington. Try to find a political commercial like that on TV.


  The campaign of Phil Angelides, the State Treasurer of California, a candidate to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, has embraced a MySpace page started by a volunteer. It resembles a campaign Web site with a bio and campaign blog with a roll of positive comments including one that says: "OMG Phil you're awesome because you like education!"

Though candidates can set up a MySpace presence independent of the company, last week MySpace raised its political profile when it said it would help promote former Vice-President Al Gore's documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. MySpace Senior Vice-President for Public Affairs Jeff Berman emphasizes that the effort is a nonpartisan public service.

Social networks are "a great opportunity that nearly everyone in the political arena is missing," says Micah Sifry, executive editor of Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site about politics and technology.


  Yet even as a handful of candidates embrace the site, it's clear why many others would steer clear. Politicians, especially incumbents, "are nervous in general about anything on the Web that's interactive," Sifry says. Posting on a social network where outsiders create so much of the content requires ceding some degree of control over one's image. Advertisers face a similar dilemma (see BW Online, 02/28/06, "Social Networks: More Bubble than Profit"). News Corp. (NWS), which bought MySpace last year for $580 million, owns conservative media outlets like Fox News and the New York Post. MySpace, on the other hand, is not partisan.

The more extensively a campaign uses MySpace, the more vulnerable it is to unfavorable associations. To build a network, a campaign must link to friends and allow them to post comments on its profile. "Friends" of a campaign could connect a politician's site to material way outside normal political discourse, from random banter to allusions to sex and drugs. By the same token, a profile that approves too few friends won't capitalize on the site's anarchic ability to share information.

Sifry thinks pols should dive in anyway. "Would a politician say I'm not going to visit a factory that employs 1,000 [people] because in the locker room there are pictures of naked women?" he asks.


  Many prominent politicians already have MySpace profiles devoted to them that range in tone from respectful to playful to vicious. A tongue-in-cheek site dedicated to Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.), that is almost certainly independent of the Senator's office, announces that he's running for the White House in 2008. One of his friends uses the platform to advocate the marijuana plant as a solution to the nation's energy problems. Biden's office didn't immediately return a call for comment. A page devoted to Vice-President Dick Cheney calls him the "VP in charge of funk." Cheney's office says it does not endorse the site.

The choice candidates face is to try and ignore them or fight back. Irrespective of individual candidates, MySpace groups for both major parties each have tens of thousands of members.

It's inevitable that the Internet will continue to play a larger role in national politics. But it's impossible to know if MySpace will grow into a significant campaigning technique, or even still be popular, by the next presidential election.


  Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor of political management at George Washington University, thinks candidates would be better off with another site. "It seems to me that [politicians] should find better ways to ingratiate themselves" with young voters, he says, "Anyone over 30 looks awkward on MySpace." Cornfield hopes a more dignified approach could come from outfit ElectionMall.com, a politics oriented Internet company where he is vice-president of public affairs.

"The beauty of MySpace is that it's a customized experience," counters Berman of MySpace. He believes it can promote politicians as well as heavy metal bands.

Lichtman says he sees it as a way to reach out to idealistic young people and doesn't seem concerned about looking out of place. He notes: "We're a wide-open kind of campaign."

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