Coming Soon to a Website Near You
Political candidates are increasingly using social media as a way to reach and interact with voters. The appeal is clear. Since social media is largely free, it is attractive to many candidates as they try to stretch their precious campaign dollars even further.
Social media tools are also easy to use and available to the vast majority of the population. Candidates and elected officials would be foolish to overlook this relatively new avenue for communicating with their voting population.
However, it has its own challenges and using these tools may become a little more cumbersome for Maryland candidates if new regulations are enacted.
The Maryland Board of Elections has voted to approve new campaign guidelines for candidates’ usage of social media. The rules will now be advanced to the General Assembly’s joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review committee and, if approved, could take effect as early as August.
If approved, candidates will be required to include their authority line in their online postings, much like they are required to do with print materials in today’s world.
The Baltimore Sun reported that online advertisements of less than 200 characters will not need to carry the disclosure, as long as they point users to a website that carries the full sentence. This will help somewhat with Twitter, since it imposes a 140 character limit.
However, even with a URL shortener, candidates will lose at least 20 characters for the website address disclosure. This begs the question of whether candidates will move away from this tool because of the difficulty in keeping their messages to 120 characters or less.
Also consider Facebook, another popular social networking tool with more than 400 million active users. Although their character limits aren’t as strict as Twitter, they do have guidelines. For the user there is a 420 character limit on posts to the person’s own wall and a 1,000 character limit when posting on a friend's wall.
Does a message become lost when it must conclude with the authority line? Will voters start to tune out online postings because a brief message becomes cluttered with required disclosures at the end? If an authority line includes “by authority of” plus the candidate’s finance committee name and the treasurer’s name and title, you’re looking at well over 40 characters and that’s hoping for a candidate with a short name.
In print materials, there is not currently a requirement on text size for the disclosure statement; so, many candidates use a small and barely readable font to meet the requirement. With online media like Facebook, users don’t have the option of controlling text size. Any disclosures would need to simply follow the message, separated by only a period.
It seems that the state Board of Elections has the best intentions and is simply trying to make current regulations apply to today’s ever-evolving media environment. The need has arisen as several candidates have had pages created by their opponents and political rivals masquerading as the actual candidate.
It’s quite easy to see how this could happen since Twitter and Facebook do not currently require any proof of identity when creating an account. In fact, I received a friend request via Facebook last week from “Frederick Maryland.” The page icon was the Frederick County seal, so I accepted the request.
Upon further examination, I realized that this wasn’t the official page of the county, but rather someone who had set up a page veiled as the county’s page, perhaps for financial gain. I alerted the county’s public information officer and she contacted the e-mail address on the page to request that the page owner remove the county seal. At press time, the county seal was still posted on the page.
It should also be noted that the e-mail address on the page (firstname.lastname@example.org) mirrors that of the county’s real web address. It’s easy to be deceived online, so having disclosure statements front and center may help voters navigate the world of political communications. It is likely that this type of unethical behavior could increase if guidelines aren’t put into place.
If the General Assembly approves new guidelines for social media, will their efforts be destructive in limiting candidate-to-voter interaction? Or will the guidelines help protect candidates and their campaigns by providing a level playing field that requires mention of who is authorizing the posted information? Only time will tell.