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Senate candidates learn the pitfalls of online politics

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A man with a fish
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., chose a photograph highlighting his love of fishing to display on his Facebook profile. While many Facebook users have written positive testimonials on Coleman's page, some have left nasty messages. Coleman's campaign says it has opted not to remove those messages.
Screenshot from Coleman's Facebook page

If you're not one of the more than 100 million people who use MySpace or Facebook, here's how they work:

They let you make a Web page about yourself, with pictures and updates about your life. Then they link your page to the pages of all the people you know. It's a way to keep in touch with your friends.

And if you want to be elected to the U.S. Senate, you're going to need a lot of friends.

"It's a great way to extend your reach, meet people and get them involved in the campaign," says Jon-David Schlough, the interactive new media director for DFLer Al Franken's campaign. "And they're also free."

Davin Fischer, who helps run Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's MySpace and Facebook pages, points out that social networking sites aren't just one-way communication.

"People can send you messages, they can send you pictures, videos, they can do all those things," Fischer says.

But if interactivity is one of the advantages these sites offer, it's also a potential problem. On both MySpace and Facebook you can post comments that appear on the candidate's page for the whole world to see. You could write a moving testimonial in favor of Coleman, or you could write something like this:

Brett Ammend
Brett Ammend has written a number of extremely critical comments on U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's Facebook page -- some of which contain words we can't say on the radio. Coleman's campaign has not removed Ammend's comments.
Image Courtesy of Facebook

"Hey, remember when you said that you were '99 percent better' than Wellstone the same year he died?" Facebook user Brett Ammend writes on Coleman's page. "Do you ever get tired of pandering to idiots?"

Davin Fischer says he doesn't believe in censoring the site.

"We try to look for language," Fischer says. "Language is a disqualifier for us, but in terms of open, free debate and discourse; that's what this is all about."

And even though Fischer says he tries to screen out dirty words, there are some things posted on Coleman's Facebook page that we can't say on the radio.

Schlough says the Franken campaign is careful about what it allows on its site.

"We keep an eye on the content," he says, "and people can certainly air their voices. But we want to maintain some semblance of control over that content."

The Franken campaign reviews all comments before they go up, and none of the postings that appear on Franken's MySpace or Facebook pages are critical of him.

There's another problem that's specific to MySpace. You sometimes get invitations to link to people who aren't your friends. In fact they're not even real people.

"If you like my pics then you will REALLY like the one you find here," reads a phony friend request I received recently, trying to entice me to visit a porn site. "They are too risque for myspace ... grrrrowl!"

Politicians want as many friends as they can get, but they don't want those kinds of friends. And so for about an hour every day, the Franken campaign has a paid intern review all the MySpace messages and friend requests it receives.

"I go through each of them, check them out, make sure," says Erik Slivken as he scrolls through Franken's inbox. "A lot of times there's spam accounts that we obviously don't want to add as friends. This looks like a real person."

So they approve it. But the next friend request comes from someone called Totally Nude Girl. It looks like spam, but they check it out just to be sure.

"And actually it seems like a person here that's talking about women's rights," Slivken says.

Totally Nude Girl isn't a porn site. It's a feminist MySpace page, but the Franken campaign gets plenty of real spam, too.

The prevalence of spam on MySpace is one reason DFLer Mike Ciresi's campaign decided not to make a page there. 

"That creates a lot of noise that drowns out our message," says Andy Pieper, information strategist for the Ciresi campaign.

Pieper says the campaign is just doing Facebook, which has so far managed to avoid a lot of the spam problems plaguing MySpace.

But even though the Ciresi campaign hasn't had to deal with fake friends or nasty postings, they do have another problem. They don't have many friends.

If online friends were DFL convention delegates, Al Franken would clinch the nomination. Franken has about 2,500 Facebook friends, compared to fewer than 200 for Ciresi and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, another DFL candidate for Senate. DFLer Jim Cohen has only 50 friends.

Franken also handily beats Coleman in the Facebook/MySpace friend race, but Franken's campaign refuses to declare victory in the online social networking world.

"It's really nice to have a lot of friends, but I don't think it's a necessity," Schlough says. "I think the most important thing is to have a presence and to show the online community that you care."

So maybe that's one reason why, even though it wasn't a porn site after all, the Franken campaign declined to become MySpace friends with Totally Nude Girl.