U.S. politicians are increasingly discovering the benefits - and perils - of social media. While Anthony Weiner's Twitter scandal - or Joe Walsh's YouTube video - might be the most publicized examples of social media backfiring, far less sordid uses of social media by politicians have nonetheless demonstrated the limitations of a public figure's ability to control his or her online image.
As more and more politicians have begun creating Facebook and Twitter pages to communicate with their constituents, a growing number of those constituents have been communicating in return and, quite often, they aren't happy. Negative political talk back seemed to hit a fever pitch during New York's recent debates in the state Senate over the state's legalization of gay marriage.
State senator Joseph Robach, facing a wave of negative Facebook comments in the wake of his opposition vote to gay marriage, removed all comments from his Facebook page regardless of their topic. Robach's decision prompted debate amongst experts as to whether or not an elected official's Facebook page should be considered part of the public record. If part of the public record, then officials would be limited in their ability to delete information from the page.
Sen. Robach was not the only target of online anger during the gay marriage debate. Republican leader Dean Skelos, a gay marriage opponent, and Democratic senator Diane Savino, a supporter of the gay marriage legislation, faced an onslaught of angry and sometimes offensive comments on their Facebook pages. Sen. Skelos removed the comment capabilities from his page after home addresses of senators were posted and several vulgarities were used in comments.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sen. Savino expressed an understanding of constituents' rights to voice their opinion but reported discomfort at the level of vitriol in the online comments. Savino stated that he could definitely respect opposing viewpoints on this contentious issue. However, he stated that he couldn't tolerate "abusive or homophobic behavior" aimed himself, his family, and his staff.
New York is not the only case in which Facebook has played a role in shaping the gay marriage debate. In June, a Facebook page urged a boycott of "the Basilica Block Party," a major fundraising venture of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The page encouraged individuals to "Say No to the Basilica Block Party" because of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' support of a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Several bands playing the event began to receive comments encouraging them to withdraw from the event.
Only time will tell whether Facebook and other social media sites representing politicians, public figures and major institutions will continue to serve as a public and often raucous political forum or whether politicians and other figures will limit discussion by curtailing the ability of individuals to comment on their sites.
Author Jason Lancaster is an Intnernet marketing consultant righting on behalf of GayDatingSites.com, a website that reviews the best gay dating sites, funny dating stories, and relationship tips for gay singles.