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Facebook: Not Controlling Your Politics

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It was exam week when Candy Elizabeth at last became an active administrator for the Facebook group "Hillary Clinton for President - One Million Strong."

"I didn't know how I was going to handle it," she says, noting that there seemed to be way too many people posting inappropriate comments for her to weed out. To make matters worse, some tech glitch was preventing her from banning the worst offenders. For months, stretching back a full semester, to December 2007, she had had problems searching for disruptive members in order to remove them from the group. Then, attempting after review to lift a ban on a well-meaning group member, proved impossible. She contacted Facebook, and after much back and forth, Facebook removed the ban internally.

Elizabeth says that in general Facebook wasn't responsive or very helpful. Staffers attributed the complications to large membership and to a general glitch in the Facebook search feature. In the months she experienced the tech difficulties, though, Elizabeth says she noted that Facebook was implementing upgrades to the larger social networking site. In the months the Clinton group experienced the problems, Facebook implemented robust privacy features, Facebook Lexicon, and language preferences. Elizabeth grew increasingly suspicious.

The Clinton group problems, teamed with what she calls the dismissive or at best distracted air that characterized communications with the Facebook staff, fueled her fears. It is also well known that Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook and a current consultant to the company, is coordinating online organizing for the Obama campaign. "It all just seemed not right," she says.

Elizabeth was prompted to write an open letter to the administration, which she posted on the group's Facebook page, laying out her concerns and challenging Facebook to respond.

Dear Dori

I am deeply disappointed that Facebook has made no progess and has not even provided a timeline for action regarding the glitch in the "Hillary Clinton For President - One Million Strong" Facebook Group. You have been aware of this problem since February and have done nothing.

[...]

The group's primary purpose is to encourage political activism and the exchange of political ideas. Since Facebook admins have taken no action on the numerous reports of abuses of Facebooks' terms of use made by unwanted members in our group; we must be able to put more moderators in place in order to maintain the group's integrity and civility. Spam and offensive messages on our boards and discussion threads run rampant. The Obama group is able to swiftly and efficiently remove them since they have numerous moderators and are able to ban members. We expect equal treatment.

Since we believe that an unacceptable amount of time has passed since we first brought this issue to your attention, we have now CC'd numerous members of the national press as well as both presidential campaigns.

Candy and another administrator, Kyle Harris-Smith, also decided to conduct their own test of the nature of Facebook's political and ideological allegiances.

Harris-Smith thought it was "sad how much misogyny there is on Facebook." He compiled a list of Facebook groups that were either overtly racist in relation to Barack Obama or misogynist toward Hillary Clinton. He submitted the list to Facebook, writing that the groups violated the Facebook Code of Conduct and so should be removed. The list contained two kinds of groups in particular, those that asked Obama to "go pick some cotton" and Clinton to "go make a sandwich" or "get back in the kitchen." The group "Barack Obama: Stop Running for President and Pick Me some Cotton" was removed while "Hillary Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich" still exists at the time of this writing. Elizabeth and Harris-Smith felt this represented a level of disrespect for women among the Facebook staff but that it might also point to the political bias they suspected existed toward Barack Obama.

But Ken Stokes, an administrator for "Barack Obama For President -- One Million Strong," the main Barack Obama Facebook group, says his group experienced similar problems, particularly with the video section, where administrators couldn't control who could post videos nor remove the video section altogether. They also, like the Clinton group administrators, couldn't use the site's search feature to ban disruptive members.

Facebook tech people referred OTB reporters to the press offices, which sent a general email expressing regret that they couldn't answer at the time due the high volume of requests for interviews, referring readers to the company's press page. None of the reported glitches -- their incidence or causes or solutions -- have been documented publicly by Facebook, which may be the heart of the problem. Indeed it's not the first time the company has been accused of censorship.

In late 2007, TechCrunch reported on the fact that searches for Ron Paul on Facebook returned no results. A TechCrunch commenter who said he or she worked with political features at Facebook noted that this was simply a problem with the search feature, that the word "ron" fell out of the search index causing any searches with the word to return no results. Nevertheless many TechCrunch commenters refused to believe the failed searches were merely the result of technical problems.

****
People that use Facebook to advance political causes see it as an invaluable tool, an incredible communication medium that fosters a certain variety of intimacy or connectedness among a demographic and in an era where old-style measures of stability seem of diminishing use and relevance. University students and recent graduates move often. Their home addresses mean almost nothing to organizations looking for any kind of sustained contact, where weekly or even more frequent contact can be the key to advancing your cause and driving participation.

Pro-Obama group administrator Colin Hicks finds Facebook key for those looking for round-the-clock campaign coverage: "Anyone can view the group anytime and find a discussion about some aspect of the campaign, related current events, other political happenings or topics."

Elizabeth gets messages from group members thanking her for the group. She views it as a refuge for those who want to discuss Clinton's campaign in a positive environment.

Both groups also feel that their efforts have lead to larger numbers of campaign contributions and create spaces for open dialogue about the political process.

In fact, many of the administrators for the groups are becoming politically active for the first time in their lives and in the post 9-11 world. If Washington politics in the Enron and Iraq years has been stamped with secrecy on the one hand and exposure on the other, new-media in general and now so-called social media has been portrayed and accepted as liberating for being grass-roots-style democratic -- a medium of the people that smashes borders. Political Facebook groups include those that center on the detention facility at Guantanamo, global warming, the genocide in Darfur and the political crisis in Kenya. The fear that Facebook may be biased -- another source of hidden control, either as a result of staff interference or software design or alleged or ignored technical difficulties -- increasingly seems a natural concern and one that should be addressed as a function of the medium.

In a digital world, the ability for privately owned services that are increasingly the contemporary equivalent of the public communications utilities of the now-distant past -- early radio and TV and telephones -- should expect wariness and suspicion on the part of users who depend on these technologies to communicate their most private and most political thoughts. To brush off issues of censorship as mere "technical glitches" is dispiriting for being remote and murky -- the fertile swampland where fears of censorship grow.

Transparency may as a result soon become more than just a campaign watchword. It should become a business watchword. The transparent model has been successful for other fledging Web 2.0 interests, such as Twitter, which recently also was splashily taken into the world of politics by members of Congress and the presidential campaigns. Twitter, a growing mini-medium, is making all tech issues the subject of a public blog dedicated to communicating the problems users are having and why and how the company is attempting to solve them.

Facebook should friend Twitter and learn a thing or two.

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