05 December 2007

The Political Ramifications of Stupidity

So let's say you're a Democrat running for major political office - Representative, Senator, President, that sort of thing. You need cash quickly and you want to appeal to large numbers of small-amount donors who care about particular issues. Social media has become a great option, and Facebook, with all the information readily available about its users, is probably one of the best.

Except it probably isn't anymore.

Many leaders in the social media world have been discussing Facebook's disastrous PR strategy (or complete lack of a strategy) with Facebook Beacon, the application that told all your Facebook friends what you've been buying online - without getting your permission. The consensus online is that Facebook has been incredibly stupid and insensitive to users - and what's worse, they haven't ever bothered to explain themselves in a meaningful way.

It seems obvious to me Facebook cares much more about its actual customers - the companies that buy ad space on its network - than it ever did about its users, who merrily type and click away (myself included) as the site collects more and more data about our browsing and shopping habits. That's just basic capitalism.

But now users are actually speaking out and resenting the fact that Facebook is acting like - well, like a company run by a 23-year-old kid. A brilliant kid, but still a kid. It's going to get much, much worse.

This isn't the first time Facebook has acted stupidly and then clammed up about it. The "pro-anorexia groups yes, breastfeeding pictures no" debacle is one example, but it's by no means the worst. When you have to be publicly chided by the New York Attorney General for not answering his calls about sexual predators on the Facebook network, let's just say you have a problem with communication.

So back to that Democratic candidate again. You're trying to engage voters. You know the users on Facebook tend to skew female and are more liberal than conservative. So you set up the Facebook group, build the cause from the "Causes" app, and post video and whatnot.

And then your communications director gets the call from the ambitious reporter. "Why is your candidate soliciting money on a network that promotes anorexia, opposes breastfeeding, won't help the New York AG stop sexual predators, and sells the financial information of its users without consent?"

Ugh. The classic "guilt by association" question - a staple for any reporter trying to make a story out of something that has nothing to do with you. They're most common on a slow news day or when someone on the Internet wants to drudge something up to smear you. After all, you're on the right side of these issues. But now you look like you aren't. And you can't afford to look weak on any of this stuff.

So you call Facebook and ask them how you should answer. And you need an answer fast because the reporter is on deadline and needs something by 4pm or so. But Facebook won't call back, because they're in the PR bunker waiting for it to blow over.

So now, as a candidate, you're really only left with one choice.

You have to kick the snot out of Facebook.

You have to do all the things that those left-of-center, tech-savvy, uncommitted voters would want you to do. You have to give the speech about protecting kids online, and make an example out of Facebook. (The speech would say something like "if Facebook's young CEO had kids, maybe this would have been handled better.") You have to show up at the La Leche League and the adolescent clinic. You have to announce your strong opposition to Facebook's nod-and-wink opt-out policies and you might even have to announce legislation that would make tools like Beacon illegal.

You're in a close election, and you're more than willing to throw some company that isn't even public yet under the bus if it helps you get elected. Frankly, there's very little risk here - you can always reach out to a few more blogs and Act Blue for cash if you just do a little work identifying their audiences and building a few relationships.

After all, it's not like Facebook will actively engage those liberal female users - or anyone else, for that matter - in any kind of meaningful discussion to explain their choices or defend their reputation.

UPDATE: Facebook's CEO writes a post on his blog apologizing for the Beacon mistakes. It's a start. What's needed is a systemic change in the way Facebook communicates with its users, and a more dynamic and personal approach from its CEO on the issues its users care about.


Brad said...

It certainly creates a problem for a campaign.

I don't think MSM coverage of these Facebook debacles are far away. It feels like "that kind of story." I remember seeing some around Cuomo's fight with Facebook, but I don't remember seeing it going anywhere, and that's been surprising.

Right now, candidates really like Facebook. It's an organizing tool, a way to get the message out, and it's been an overall success. And for Obama, whose support comes from younger voters, taking on Facebook might be more of a liability than a benefit. Prohibition of alcohol might be more politically popular than taking away Facebook ;)

No arguments from me on whether or not Facebook is emerging as a bad actor -- but until more AGs take the issue on (it's certainly much more AG-friendly than candidate-friendly of an issue), or there's a MSM drum, I'm betting that the candidates either a) don't know/care about the problems with Facebook, or b) are whistling and twiddling their thumbs and hoping it doesn't surface yet.

Selfmademom said...

You know what's funny? I just saw today in PR week that the head of Facebook's Communications/ PR team was just named as one of their "40 under 40" to watch... I questioned it as well with all the bad press about Fbook out there.