Hooking Up, Politically

Student leaders use Facebook to advertise events and bolster group membership.
August 4, 2006

She messages him. He writes her back. She looks at his friends list. He finds a mutual contact. It’s a fairly typical interaction on Facebook, the popular social networking Web site.

Except, they're not done.

Together, the Facebook browsers, who are co-founders of, say, a campus political group, send other group members -- and prospective ones -- who have accounts with the Web site a list of upcoming meetings and events.

It's known as the place where friends are tracked, parties are planned and controversies escalate, but Facebook is also becoming a key resource for student leaders who mine the site for users with similar interests and world views.

Politicians and nonprofit groups have discovered the power of grassroots online organizing, and college leaders, who are even more used to the networking functions, are staking out their Web presence, as well.

Liz Morgan, president of the Smith College Republicans, calls the site "a necessity" for any student group organizer. She said Facebook is an obvious place to look for members because users indicate their political preferences, and officers can send out e-mail invitations (like a targeted direct mail campaign) knowing that their recipients are ideologically aligned with them.

"It's a way to be more personal," said Morgan, who is also the Western co-chair of the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans. "If you see a message, you feel like you might be the only one getting it."

Fruitful Facebook searches often start by entering political buzzwords, and they don't have to be just "liberal" or "conservative." Groups of students form around issues, "Stop Illegal Immigration!" (with more than 1,200 listed members); and public figures, "I Love Bill Clinton." Most of the networks consist of students who attend the same college, but a new Facebook function allows users to form "global groups" comprised of students from different universities.

That, Morgan said, exponentially increases the chances for political networking.

Alex Youn, vice president of the Tennessee Federation of College Democrats, said the global group function allowed the College Democrats to find student leaders for the newly formed CDA Southern Caucus. 

Youn, the interim chair of the caucus and a student at Maryville College, said he targeted students on Facebook who indicated involvement in a campus Democrats group.

“We didn’t know who other chapter presidents were across the state and region," he said. "We needed support from Mississippi, Alabama and other states. Those are people we wouldn’t normally have gotten."

Youn said targeted messaging through Facebook works well because students often erase mass e-mails from other accounts or ignore -- and in some cases tear down -- flyers around campus. Those interested in a group can read a mission statement and officer bios on the Facebook page, and the group leaders can see who's checking them out.

Message boards that appear on sites can turn testy from time to time, particularly when someone from an opposing group posts an inflammatory comment.

Hooman Hedayati, president of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, said he looks forward to getting those messages. "We like the idea of debating our issue and having a discussion," he said.

A sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, Hedayati said one of the most important features of the Facebook page is that it allows the group to link to its own home page and advertise events -- such as its annual  Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break in Austin -- for like-minded activists.

Campus politicians use the site to announce agendas and attract voters. Ryan Clumpner, a student at the University of California at Davis, said a conservative student who was considered an unknown on campus easily won a student senate race by compiling a massive network of students on Facebook and targeting organizations listed on the site.

Clumpner, who is executive director of the California College Republicans, said even if only a few targeted Facebook users show interest because of what they saw on the site, the campaign is worth it. For multi-campus organizations such as the College Republicans, much of the Facebook recruitment process is also passive.

"We let it grow how it grows," he said. "Anyone can start a group, and it's a bit decentralized so sometimes all you can do it sit back and watch what happens."

For the larger groups, one frustration is determining which members are genuinely interested in being involved and which are just joining to expand their social options. There is also the concern of users with inappropriate material on their Facebook home page linking to a group page
Elizabeth M. Curtis, a graduate teaching assistant at George Washington University's Department of Women's Studies, said the site is most useful in helping groups keep track of alumni and past members. 

Curtis used the Web site to spread the word about the College Queer Leadership Conference, which she helped create while at Barnard College. She said the site can be impersonal and doesn't take the place of face-to-face networking.

"If I was running a group, I wouldn't recommend investing the whole budget [in Facebook advertising], but it's an important component."

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