Capital Living

Congress ‘friends’ Facebook

In the spirit of “going where the people are,” a sizeable majority of lawmakers are poking, writing on walls and uploading homemade videos.

Where are they going? To Facebook and sites just like it.

The results are oddly amusing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gets scolded by an Angela Johnson of New York for supposedly deleting Johnson’s “wall” posts — comments by friends or supporters of a Facebook member. She then invites the most powerful woman in Washington to hang out the next time Pelosi hits the Big Apple.

“Naance! Why you delete all my posts girrrrl?” Johnson writes. “I’m showing you the love!”

No word on whether the Speaker will accept Johnson’s offer, but Pelosi’s new media director, Karina Newton, has a message for Johnson regarding the posts she claims are deleted: “If you’re out there, Angela, you just have to click on ‘See all wall posts.’ ” (All wall posts get archived unless the user deletes them.)

An unofficial count conducted by The Hill reveals that 349 members of Congress have a presence on Facebook. The website’s officials say they helped many members up for election in 2006 start a page, and in 2007, the site launched a profile template specifically for politicians.

Some lawmakers also have profiles on MySpace and Friendster, other popular social-networking sites, although involvement on those sites appears limited to the current and former 2008 presidential candidates.

But just because lawmakers are now where the people are doesn’t mean they know what to do once they’re there. (Think of your first middle-school dance.) While many members have a presence on Facebook, their use of the site’s features, knowledge of information posted on their pages, online etiquette and overall command often falls into the “novice” category.

Case in point: Two wall postings on Rep. John Sarbanes’s (D-Md.) profile contain profanity. When asked about the curse words, Sarbanes admits ignorance.

“These things are hard to police, but you do the best you can,” he says, shaking his head in dismay.

He did not indicate whether he knew he could delete such comments.

Or consider this. A Washington-based presidential campaign writer says that he was “friended” — when one Facebook user asks another if he or she can link the two profiles — by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

“I’ve never met Ms. Slaughter, so I was pretty baffled when she friended me,” the campaign writer says, adding that he’s not from Slaughter’s district. He decided it best to decline the request.

 Zac Petkanas, Slaughter’s director of Internet communications, says Slaughter is very interested in new media and has him manage her Facebook profile on a day-to-day basis.

“She’s really used this … not only to reach out to constituents but also to groups she works with in Washington,” he says, explaining that the congresswoman has “friended” other journalists.

There are other bizarre encounters.

In the “About Me” section of his Facebook profile, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) declares that his favorite animal is “party.” Bayh spokesman Jonathan Swain won’t confirm whether the senator had a wild streak in college, instead calling the entry a play on words and describing it as “reflective of his sense of humor.”

In Sen. Norm Coleman’s (R-Minn.) profile photo, he flashes a wide grin while displaying a fish hanging from his right forefinger and holding a pole in his left hand. We also learn that Coleman enjoys ping-pong, chess, the musical group Five for Fighting and the TV show “The Office.”

Members can have a personal profile, a politician’s profile, or both, but they also find their names associated with the “groups” feature, which rallies users around a single cause, entity or idea. Then there are applications such as Twitter, a micro-blogging service, as well as RSS news feeds and video functions.

There is also the problem that many lawmakers don’t even know they are on Facebook.

Several lawmakers — including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Reps. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) and Sarbanes — said they don’t know who created their profile, who updates it, or both. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Coleman readily admit that their 20-something children, nieces or staffers are the driving force behind their Facebook presence.

Exceptions should be noted. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is Congress’s unofficial Facebook wunderkind, regularly logging into the site himself to read and edit his profile’s content, record and upload videos, and respond to other users’ comments and questions.

“It’s the new generation of connecting with your constituents,” Ryan says. “We’re trying to really use this as an opportunity to tie in the personal side of what we’re doing in Washington.”

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) has an altogether different problem. There’s a fake Craig profile that has only one friend: Ted Haggard, the former Colorado pastor who became notorious after a male ex-prostitute accused him of participating in gay sex and taking drugs. Craig spokesman Dan Whiting confirmed the profile is not authentic and said the senator’s staff periodically checks for other such pages.

Setting up fake profiles violates the site’s policies.

“We address complaints about fake profiles … and we deal with them quickly,” said Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer and head of global public policy. Kelly also acknowledged that there are “multiple tools” that lawmakers can use, and that Facebook thinks “over time, different political figures will probably make different choices.” To that end, Facebook has been trying to help lawmakers get a better grasp of the website’s functions. It held a training session on the Hill last fall and plans another in the spring.

The onus ultimately falls on members of Congress to tap into Facebook’s full potential, say experts, who, so far, are unimpressed.

Rather than rush to get on Facebook just for the exposure, say experts, lawmakers should be more thoughtful about the information they want to include in their profile and how they want to engage other users.

“Politicians barely know how to use their BlackBerrys or their iPhones, so it’s not surprising that they are having a hard time navigating the world of Facebook,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, an organization that studies how politics and technology intersect. “To use Facebook properly, you have to use it, you have to be there.”

Brian Reich, author of Media Rules! Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience, says lawmakers must focus on building relationships with other members by using innovative ways to communicate a common cause.

“It’s about what the audience on Facebook wants and expects out of a relationship with a member of Congress,” he says. “The key to having that relationship is a combination of things: information, some kind of experience, or stuff the audience really values.”

But lawmakers slow to adopt Facebook can take heart. As the second half of Angela Johnson’s latest wall posting to Pelosi indicates, other users can be forgiving and eager to keep the connection going.

“Keep on keeping it real baybee … Love ya! xx ANG.”

Andrea L. Alford, Dan Hayner and Michael Sherry contributed to this report.

Tags Jeff Sessions John Cornyn Susan Collins
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