U.S. Politics on Facebook: Fail

By Kenneth Jost
Associate editor, CQ Researcher
      It’s not enough that Facebook is monetizing everyone’s personal information by turning it over to advertisers for them to use in targeted sales pitches that pop up, unbidden and unwanted, on our Facebook pages. Now the aggressive social network wants to “cover” U.S. politics — with a non-coincidental benefit to the company’s continuing growth.
      Go to “U.S. Politics on Facebook” for the latest reports and “data” on major races in the Nov. 2 elections. The reports, such as the Oct. 20 entry on the Barbara Boxer-Carly Fiorina Senate contest in California, are humdrum digests of previous coverage available from any of those antiquated mainstream media.
      The numbers, however, are new … and available only on Facebook. That’s because the data consist of the numbers of Facebook supporters for each candidate: 39,000 for Boxer, the Democratic incumbent, versus 18,000 for Fiorina, her Republican challenger.
      Keep going, and you’ll find more Facebook data on candidates, such as the biggest increase in Facebook supporters during the past week (“Gaining momentum”), the biggest “fan gap” between opponents (“Top landslides”) and the most campaign wall postings during the past week (“Top posters”). The labels necessarily imply some relevance to the state of the respective campaigns. Thus, a reader/user would think that “landslides” are coming for Tea Party Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada (81,798 more fans than incumbent Democratic Sen. Harry Reid) and for GOP Senate hopeful Rand Paul in Kentucky (73,311 more fans than Democrat Jack Conway).
      This information is at best close to worthless and at worst totally misleading. Any mainstream publication would append a cautionary note about the value of unscientific polls — to wit, not much. No caveats from Facebook. Nor any mention of scientific polling information about these races — which show Conway with a narrow lead over Paul in Kentucky and a dead heat in the Reid-Angle race in Nevada. So much for “top landslides.”
      Misinformation or not, Facebook stands to gain from treating FB support as important. If FB fan support is a new measure of a campaign’s strength, a candidate has no recourse but to drive supporters to Facebook. Indeed, Fiorina “has a set goal of boosting her supporter total on Facebook to 20,000.” Some of those added supporters may be new to Facebook: new eyeballs to sell to Facebook’s growing and increasingly lucrative advertiser base.
      The “Facebook political team” — their identities and credentials not provided, their ages easy to guess — promise more updates over the next two weeks: House races on Tuesdays, Senate contests on Wednesdays and gubernatorial elections on Thursdays. The “team” want us to know that candidates across the country “are using Facebook to campaign and engage authentically [emphasis added] with voters as well as organize supporters in ways unimaginable a decade ago.” So much for greeting voters at the factory gate or subway station.
      This low-intensity Facebook user (431 friends) appreciates the social network benefits of staying in touch with friends, nearby or distant, and making new acquaintanceships and connections. In the real world, these benefits apparently come with the loss of privacy inherent in Facebook’s operations, the company’s apologies and defenses notwithstanding.
      For political information and campaign coverage, however, excuuuuse me if I continue to look to mainstream media for real news and analysis. Facebook’s effort to make itself the gauge of voter sentiment and campaign strength may make Mark Zuckerberg and other investors that much richer, but the gains for the political system are harder to discern.