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Students create Facebook groups for 2008 presidential campaigns

May 4, 2007

The presidential election may still be 18 months away, and primary elections nearly a year down the road, but politics is not far from the minds of many UW-River Falls students.

Facebook.com, the popular social networking site where more than 6,700 UWRF students and alumni are listed as members, is one of many in a large group of similar Web sites aimed at connecting young people through the Internet. According to the site, one of its main focuses, aside from allowing users to keep in contact with their peers, is the user-created groups that unite members under various causes, many of them political in nature.

“Facebook is a huge advantage for groups, especially political groups,” said John Byers, the creator of the UWRF College Democrats group. “Some people might not even know that River Falls had a College Democrats organization if it hadn’t been for Facebook.”

Nick Shillingford, co-founder of the River Falls chapter of Socialist Alternative, said he believes these Web sites can be a helpful tool for banding students together under common beliefs.

“It’s a good way to show people there are other people that think like them,” Shillingford said.

Though Shillingford said Facebook can be a positive social tool for students who feel isolated by their viewpoints, its influence on those viewpoints is relatively low.

“It’s a very minor way of convincing them, politically,” he said. “Trolling [for support] and trying to convince people are two different things.”

Similarly a political science professor Neil Kraus said he believes these sites cannot necessarily persuade someone who is not politically active to become so.

“In terms of something like Facebook, I’m not so sure that’s helpful in terms of encouraging any sort of increase in political knowledge or participation among young people,” he said. “If it were, I imagine that political participation rates among young people would be consistently increasing, but I don’t think that’s happening.”

The Socialist Alternative currently manages a Facebook group with 22 members at the University. The UWRF College Democrats group consists of 113 students, while the College Republicans have 56 members on their official site.

Shillingford said that high membership does not necessarily mean high involvement. He said less that half of those in the group actively post on message boards or participate in events.

“You can just as easily give an inflated view of what something actually is,” he said.
When asked about the effectiveness of the College Democrat’s group, Byers said, “I’m sure it has increased awareness about our presence on campus. It seems as if we get a good turnout every week.”

Eric Bohl, the vice-chair of the College Republicans, said in an e-mail that his organization was “not interested” in answering questions on the subject.

In addition to organizational groups, there are many other political Facebook groups on both national and River Falls networks that support a wide range of perspectives and issues from “The Anti-Federalist Society,” a UWRF group with 3 members, to “Implementation of Wu-Tang in Classrooms,” a nationwide group with nearly 3,000 members.

Sophomore Katie Theien and junior Liz Fitzgerald both belong to politically oriented groups of their Facebook accounts. Fitzgerald said she joined a “Hillary Clinton for President” group to show support for her candidate.

Theien, on the other hand, is a member of a Republican group, though she could not remember the name.

“I’m only a member because I was sent and invitation from them,” she said.
Both said they mainly use the site for “keeping in contact with friends,” not political participation.

Other students, including Junior Sonia Madlon, said they try to avoid using the Web as a source of political information. Though she logs into her Facebook account “at least one to two times a day,” she said she finds much of the information on the Internet unreliable.

“I think the Internet can be swayed either way,” agricultural education major Madlon said. “We learned in a political science class that television news and radio are the better sources to go off of.”

Junior Dan Bullock, a conservation major, also said he pays more attention to television news than Internet sources.

“It’s easier to listen than to sit and try to find stuff [on the Internet],” he said.
He said he could not remember if he belonged to any political groups on Facebook.
Both Facebook and MySpace — another extremely popular networking site — have recently become inexpensive and far-reaching forums for 2008 presidential nominees to expand their notoriety and perhaps garner support from the youth demographic.

Kraus, however, warns that political campaign sites are often meticulously censored and may not be the best way to form an opinion about a candidate.

“A major problem is that political Web sites are, of course, set up by the campaigns, which are run by consultants, who script every word, phrase or image that appears,” he said.”

In March, myspace.com, which boasts membership of over 2,500 current UWRF students, launched “MySpace Impact,” a page dedicated to politics that links users to candidate’s official profiles, allowing them to gather information about political agendas, buy T-shirts and buttons and, if so inclined, “add” nominees to their friends list. So far, 13 candidates have MySpace pages. Democratic nominee Barack Obama is leading the pack with more than 102,000 friends.

Many hopefuls have a similar presence on Facebook. Here, members have the opportunity to “support” candidates rather than “friend” them.

“Candidates are getting much more attention from college students now than in the past,” Byers said. “And they are just loving it.”