Thursday, June 18, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Palling Around WIth Social Networkers

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 18, 2009

I normally don't read a fraction of the spam e-mail I get in my work account, but somehow I got sucked into one with the subject line, "Special Report: The Dark Side of Social Networking." It's plugging a piece written by a cyberterrorism expert named David Gewirtz, who, in a photo with the e-mail, looks a little sinister himself with his sunglasses, beard and stern expression.
Most of the points mentioned in the ad go along the usual Internet warnings. Don't post pictures or statements on the Web that can get you in trouble with current or future employers. Watch out for viruses and malware. Don't give out personal or financial information. Be careful talking to strangers, etc.

But something that struck me as a political reporter was the line, "... will a log of Twitter or Facebook postings provide future 'palling around with terrorists' albatrosses for candidates in 2012 and beyond?"

Not that I'd ever consider running for public office, but this made me think about who I "pal around with" online.

I don't think there's any terrorists among my Facebook friends. But there are politicians.

Palling around with politicos: When I started out on MySpace a few years ago, in an attempt to maintain my journalistic neutrality, I actually turned down "friendship" requests from politicians and people from special-interest organizations I covered. But eventually I realized I was cutting off myself from potential sources of stories.

For example, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez recently made some headlines when he announced on his Facebook page that he was forming an "exploratory committee" to look at the possibility of running for governor. That story generated buzz partly because there was a possible challenger to Lt. Gov, Diane Denish and partly because a serious potential candidate was announcing this on Facebook.

Suddenly Sanchez was the hip computer-age politician. Never mind the fact that two years ago Sanchez successfully carried a bill that would have scuttled the mandatory electronic filing of campaign finance reports, explaining, "It's for people like me who aren't very good at computers or (who don't have) access to the Internet." (That bill passed the 2007 Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Bill Richardson.)

Unfortunately Sanchez's Facebook page doesn't allow people to become "friends" with him. It only lets you become a "supporter" — and I'm still leery of listing myself as any candidate's "supporter."

Similarly, Denish's Facebook page isn't a personal page. It's a "group" page called Diane Denish for Governor. As of Wednesday night, this page had 156 members. Sanchez has 167 Facebook "supporters."

On the Republican side, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, who is considering a gubernatorial run, just launched her page — and you can be just friends there, though like Sanchez she has a "politician" page for "supporters." (She's got 291 friends and 317 supporters.) Another GOP gubernatorial contender Greg Zanetti also has a Facebook page, where he's got 117 friends. Former state Republican Chairman Allen Weh apparently doesn't have a Facebook page, though he recently started a Twitter account.

The truth is that even though some new-media enthusiasts fantasize about Facebook being a major battleground in the next election, the truth is most politician sites are no more exciting than an average campaign pamphlet.

However, Twitter "tweets" from politicians are a lot better than news releases. Not that they're any less self-serving or predictable. They're just a lot shorter.