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25.8.09

The Palinomenon continues on Facebook 

It has been of interest to me, as a observer, to see how former Alaskan governor has grown her fan page. Since quitting her term as governor, and promising to Tweet more, Mrs Palin has instead gone on to Facebook to get her ideas across. There’s a link there to her political action committee (PAC), and earlier this week, I Tweeted that she would overtake the Facebook fan page in terms of numbers. She has now done so, considerably: at the time of writing, Mrs Palin enjoys 825,646 members, while Ms Winfrey has 817,269. Both have grown since my Tweet, but the former vice-presidential nominee’s ranks have swelled more quickly than the media boss and TV show host’s.
   Taking the accuracy of Palin’s Facebook notes out of the equation—otherwise the comments will be filling up for weeks and this poor sucker has to approve each one—it is not hard to see how that support has come. However, as I do this ex post facto, one might think it is very easy for me to justify this post. The real test is whether someone can use the same techniques to their own advantage. And whether I can discern her next move.
   I have a few friends who are, indeed, members of Sarah Palin’s fan page, and I would never label them as unintelligent, as some anti-Palin types are prone to suggest. What seems to have worked for her is being able to read the public, especially some of the dissatisfaction toward the current administration. There is always bound to be dissatisfaction and every president’s approval rating drops after a honeymoon period. The trick is to find which issue creates the most dissatisfaction, and seize upon that.
   In Mrs Palin’s case, it was health care that saw the tide change. Initially, Palin experimented with a few statements, correcting things in the media, pasting in her farewell address, and telling people that another ethics’ complaint had failed. Then she entered the health care debate, which gained over 6,000 “likes”, Facebook’s way of signalling a thumbs-up.
   Most people know my views on this, and they are not in line with hers. However, there is enough fear-mongering (again I leave the question of whether it is warranted alone) for people to fall in to her camp. It was the post that set the tone of the Sarah Palin Facebook page. Most of us on the blogosphere took a similar number of posts before we found our “hook”, a style that suited us and our audience on our blogs.
   Importantly for Mrs Palin, she does so without the baggage of her party. While identifying herself as , as a lone wolf she does not need the approval of the party itself to say as she wishes (or, judging by the different tones in her Facebook notes, as her campaign staff wishes). While outlets such as MSNBC point to the fact that Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial term was untenable and that she had to leave, I would like to give her more credit for her shrewdness. Or her advisers’ shrewdness.
   Despite numerous ethics’ complaints, which the right say are very easy to file (and then-Gov. Palin has said so, too), there seemed to be none of the hallmarks that other politicians, who are hesitant to resign, display. American such as former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich or former US senator Larry Craig hung about, resisting the pushes to leave. During that time, I imagine family members rally around. The sudden announcement by Sarah Palin that she would quit her office was sudden, to the point where close family had no idea what had happened.
   Regardless, the has continued apace. While Governor, she used Twitter every now and then to report on things that the were not willing to (I even congratulated her once on linking to legal documents rather than an article), but I never foresaw that Facebook would become her stage. With the over-55 group growing 514 per cent, and with a larger claimed user base, the site makes sense.
   With nearly a million people following her, with thousands coming on board each day, Sarah Palin has the sort of Facebook-group growth that any of her rivals would envy. The fact the media were on the attack against her—even in the days immediately after the McCain loss as it unsuccessfully tried to position Palin as the fall girl—has helped this growth. The news networks report on the notes she issues via Facebook as though they were proclamations from the far right, and take a stand for or against; and Sarah Palin, by being absent from giving speeches before television cameras, almost seems more effective in her present mode than she ever was while glasses and lipstick were in broadcast view.
   No wonder. Even I thought some of the reporting she endured was sexist, the sort of thing that New Zealand long got over after having had two consecutive female prime ministers. Maybe there is a bit of karma there as 800,000-plus Americans flock to her Facebook page and avoid channels that have let them down.
   As I have been saying in my recent speeches, people want engagement. With the growing cynicism toward American and their sensationalist ways, they feel that the direct approach is best. We do not know yet how sincere Mrs Palin is through her Facebook page, but it has almost become a great case study for any student of politics or media; in much the same way the President mobilized his constituents via Twitter.
   In this particular case, it might not be true engagement that has people excited to come on board a campaign, but the appearance of . After all, in her days, Governor Palin had an appalling follow-back ratio, treating her account as a one-way tool. (One person whose ratio was worse was, interestingly, Oprah Winfrey.) A politician should, ideally, know better, and follow back citizens more readily. On this note, President Obama and former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards understand the social media phenomenon better, as do Mrs Palin’s former gubernatorial colleagues in the , Bobby Jindal and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
   While I do not expect Sarah Palin to answer all the feedback on her Facebook wall (which is, incidentally, largely positive), I sense there needs to be something more—even a status update or an acknowledgement—rather than the continued broadcast of Facebook “notes”. Eventually, people might tire of the lack of engagement, and I really do not think Facebook pages should be repositories of op-eds and press releases. Sarah Palin is about to head into Act Three of her experiment, which will be interesting to watch.
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Comments:
Jack,

Thanks for sharing your insights into Palin's use of social media in general and Facebook in particular.

Your thoughts on Palin not needing her party's approval got me to thinking about the impact of social media on parliamentary systems.

In general our US system has strong individual candidates and weaker parties shaped by successful candidates.

It's my understanding that parliamentary systems are the reverse; strong parties that put forward individuals.

Could social media within parliamentary systems cause individual candidates to gain ascendancy without their party's approval? What would this do to the parliamentary system?

Just musing.

Keep creating...it's more fun that way,
Mike  
Hi Mike: great to hear from you. I think the traditional Westminster parliamentary system is becoming slightly more “presidential” but you are right that generally, the party is more of a foundation for the candidate than the other way around. You might have a great candidate, but a weak party means that (s)he will not get anywhere.
   I believe social media will push individual candidates up, and this is already happening with some of the politicians here who Facebook. However, as long as they are careful and do not say something their parties would not say, I believe the system will remain intact.
   The Westminster system tends to promote favourites anyway, with MPs vying for the top job, sometimes through underhanded means. If they see social media to further their own egos, then they will adopt them. I think it will do little to the system that is any more negative than what we see today; in fact, it might push them to have greater accountability if they truly wish to engage us well.
   One MP here I can think of, the United Future leader Peter Dunne, is probably a good example of someone with common sense who is happy to engage the public, and can maintain a good profile in the mainstream media, too. If he were less senior and in another party, I would expect to see him gain favouritism through his usage of social media as a tool for democracy.  
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Entries from 2006 to the end of 2009 were done on the Blogger service. As of January 1, 2010, this blog has shifted to a Wordpress installation, with the latest posts here.
   With Blogger ceasing to support FTP publishing on May 1, I have decided to turn these older pages in to an archive, so you will no longer be able to enter comments. However, you can comment on entries posted after January 1, 2010.


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