Facebook Politics: Some Misconceptions

By Jared Wesley on Sep 18, 2008

We've heard a lot about the impact of Faceboook on this year's campaign.  Some of the reports are valid, while others deserve a closer look.  Here's a list of what I consider to be some major misconceptions about the political side of the social networking site.

Misconception:  Parties and candidates  are using Facebook PRIMARILY as a means of reaching out to new supporters.  Granted, some Facebookers may be drawn by peer pressure to become a "fan" of Dr. Dion.  (The same thing may happen, for instance, if 50 of my friends become fans of John Mayer.)  If anecdotal evidence is any guide, however, anyone who is willing to place a Liberal Party symbol, or John Mayer's face, on his or her homepage was already in that camp, to begin with.  Like many other forms of party contact (phone, door-to-door, email, mail), the Internet is a new tool being put to old means:  connecting the party to its grassroots supporters.  Facebook is a new venue for old partisans to exchange ideas, promote events, and rally the base.  If it recruits new party supporters, that's a bonus.

Misconception:  Facebook is mobilizing an entire generation of new voters, connecting them -- for the first time -- to the democratic process.  If this is true, the evidence is difficult to find on-line.  In fact, the largest Facebook "event" of its kind reports that, compared to the number of people who will be "attending" "Election 2008", just as many people "may" or "will not" show up.  Moreover, browsing through the list of events and groups associated with the 2008 campaign, while over a dozen are dedicated to getting out the vote, several others encourage voters to "spoil your ballot," "boycott the election," or simply "stay home."

Misconception:  Facebook sites are a grassroots phenomenon.  While several candidates may have set up their own "fan club" sites, at least one party (the Conservatives) has suggested that all of its candidates develop such pages.  A campaign directive from the central office does not a grassroots movement make.

Misconception:  The "Anti-Harper Vote-Swap" Project will revolutionize strategic voting in Canada.  The commitment of a few thousand people on Facebook may well be enough to swing a limited number of ridings.  (Elizabeth May may benefit from this in her bid to unseat Peter MacKay).  Even this is a tall order, however.  Consider the tens of thousands of people who sign on-line petitions, or join "boycott" lists to protest high gas prices.  (Over 2 million are members of this group, for instance.)  How many of these people follow through on their e-commitments with formal political action? (Incidently, there is now at least one "Anti-Liberal Vote Swap" group on Facebook.)

Overall, the impact of Facebook on democracy remains to be seen.  Will it engage an entire generation in formal politics?  Or will it simply reinforce the partisan leanings of those already connected to the process?  In the absence of any formal academic study, your guess is as good as mine.  (In the meantime, I'm going to go check out this John Mayer guy.  I hear he dated Jennifer Aniston?)  

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Procrastination

Overall, I think Facebook's impact on democracy in Canada will minimal. Instead, the democracy-oriented functions are simply another way for us to procrastinate at work.

Given Facebook's origins (in the American Ivy League system), any serious discussion of its impact, democratic or otherwise, would need to include a discussion of class/income strata. Few seem to be including that in their analysis. 

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