Facebook Politics?

Kevin Van Aelst

Published: September 12, 2008

In late August, John McCain's Facebook page featured a martial semi-profile of the candidate emblazoned with the slogan, "Country First: The Official Home of John McCain on Facebook." In early September, the slogan was replaced by "The Ticket for America." A new image showed McCain and Sarah Palin companionably joined by Photoshop, apparently, given how inorganic the pose seemed.


For adventures in digital culture, don't miss The Medium, a blog by Virginia Heffernan.

The candidates now pose before a half-moon of convention bunting featuring a red-heavy configuration of stars and stripes. The bunting looks ragged. The "America First" picture was better. I know presidential candidates have to pose with running mates as if with brides or newborns, but they look more dignified when photographed alone.

Where my own page on Facebook, the social-networking site, lists my "friends," the pages of McCain and other politicians and celebrities show "supporters" or "fans." McCain had fully 269,709 when I last looked. He seems to have picked up about 45,000 between the Democratic National Convention and the start of the Republican one. The day that McCain named Palin as his V.P. candidate, I notice idly from McCain's Facebook résumé, was also the candidate's 72nd birthday: Aug. 29. His political views are listed right after his birthday: conservative.

Facebook appears to have supplied a job-seeking template for aspiring free-world leaders, and blanks have been informatively filled in.

Country: United States

Currently Running for Office: President

Party: Republican Party

Current Office: Senate

State: Arizona

People reveal themselves on Facebook by making unmistakable just what kind of cyberfigure they hope to cut. The software seems to compel it. While no information is mandatory on a Facebook page, McCain supplies a phone number, as well as his favorite movies, book and television shows, including "Viva Zapata!" "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Some Like It Hot," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "24" and "Seinfeld." We also get McCain's "work info," a cutesy if serviceable heading for jobs at, say, Forever 21 or Gold's Gym. It works less well for heavily decorated positions in the U.S. Navy.

McCain's page has a message for the young. A campaign video in which McCain fields a student's question about whether he's too old to be president permits him one of the longest stretches of dialogue on a site that's curiously quiet when it comes to McCain's own voice. (By contrast, Barack Obama's Facebook page resounds with audio of the candidate.) "I've out-campaigned all of my opponents, and I'm confident that I will," McCain says in the video, adding, "Thanks for the question, you little jerk." The song "Johnny B. Goode" then comes up — Go Johnny, go, go! — and the implication is clear: the Facebook McCain is a 72-year-old whippersnapper.

Another video, in which the candidate is equally reticent, presents McCain's middle-way stance on global warming. Yet another shows his radical opposition to Congressional profligacy: a $3 million study of bear DNA and a $1 million Woodstock museum strike his campaign as especially galling. This video occasions a sincere discussion in the comments section of what qualifies as waste. At the round table are Facebook users affiliated variously with Georgetown University, International School Bangkok, the Carlton J. Kell High School, Thomas Jefferson High School and the Berkeley Carroll School. (There's not much incentive to fake your identity or bona fides on Facebook, and it's difficult, too. Still, people do it.)

Someone called Anthony points out early on that while the Woodstock museum is "a stupid way to spend a million bucks," the war in Iraq costs much more. Others on the site roundly deride him as a moron. "Matt Mongeau (Xaverian Brothers High School)," whose avatar shows a shirtless bronzed glamour boy, scolds: "cmon anthony war is expensive. it always has been it always will be. so stop bitching about it the reason the Iraqis want us gone is becasue they have a sense of pride and want to do things themselves they dont want help."

If you click on a photo showing McCain with his wife, Cindy, greeting Palin under a tree, you arrive at Palin's Facebook page, which reveals that she has (at the time of this writing) 51,847 supporters. The "Ticket for America" picture appears. Palin's page features a Facebook "mini-feed" — bullet-point notes that record her every move on the site. On Friday, Aug. 29, at 1:49 p.m., evidently: "Sarah Palin updated their profile. They changed the following: Country and Current Office." I can't find evidence of these changes on the page, as Palin's country and current office are not listed anywhere. There is, however, a Facebook "wall" on which people have written, "I would like to congratulate Ms. Palin on her upcoming new job as a Grandmother!" and "Am I the only one who thinks Palin's kinda hot?"

Back to McCain, and the most tempting part of his page: a videogame called Pork Invaders. By hitting my space bar, I'm firing vetoes at pudgy pink pigs who stand for wasteful government spending. It's a forgiving game: the pigs don't fire back often. My veto-bullets will also take slightly curved paths, if necessary, to hit their targets. I'm pleased to kill all the pork invaders. My reward is a fact sheet that says Barack Obama has requested $740 million in earmarks — tax money for his "pet projects" — where McCain has $0 in earmarks. Hunh. Within a few more levels, I've saved the American people — says the ticker — some $4 billion. Game over. You can thank me later.

McCain's wall has more than 60,000 posts. The posts, which started trickling in on Feb. 17, 2007, were mostly notes to McCain himself. That's how people generally use Facebook Walls. More than a year later, a group of canny commenters dominate the wall and talk almost entirely to one another. They use first names, favor a tone of highhanded tolerance for competing views and dismiss as jargon or illiteracy even seemingly innocuous message-board conventions like "lol." The opinions on the site are unpredictable, and conversation flips this way and that like a cat in a bag. Someone suggested that McCain should be ashamed for calling Palin away from her work as mother of five to run with him. Others stump tirelessly for Obama. Still others seem to be hunting, in vain, for white supremacists among the McCain supporters.

Abortion comes up, though the discussion is not as heated as might be expected. Poverty gets people going, as do assertions of who — if anyone — deserves handouts and tax breaks. The question of whether America is a meritocracy is especially pressing for these posters, many of whom appear to be college students.

An anti-McCain poster named Rachida Shapi, who gives her location as France and is accepted by the crowd as French, tends to get hazed for posting news that is both late and wrong ("Know you that Palin has a 17-year-old girl who has an illegitimate child?"). Nonetheless, she persists, and the (presumably) American posters take great pleasure in teaching her the ropes of speedy American political debate, even as they wonder what she's doing on this particular wall.

In fact, that question seems to haunt the whole crowd. What are we doing here? Clearly, it could go either way. What they're doing on John McCain's Facebook page — debating, joking, cooking up homemade propaganda about war, poverty, taxation, sexuality, immigration, religion — is, depending on who's talking and what day it is, either just another online waste of time or the most important thing they've ever done in their lives.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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