Let's say you want to keep up with the latest in Maryland's governor's race, wherever you are, so you sign up to follow the major candidates on Twitter. Social media, still largely obscure when former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Gov. Martin O'Malley squared off for the first time, is now such a dominant technology that both campaigns are trying to use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to connect with voters, keep people informed and build support. So you sign up to follow @bobehrlich and @martinomalley, and you get … a stream of messages about Garfield cartoons?
For years, Maryland, like most states, has had rules about how political candidates communicate with voters. The state doesn't regulate the content of those fliers or radio or TV commercials, but it does require that they be clearly labeled so that voters know who they're coming from. In the world of social media, though, it would be easy to get confused about what is legitimate and what's not. (For the record, the real Twitter feeds from the candidates are @ehrlich4md and @GovernorOMalley.)
Beyond the potential for honest confusion, social media is ripe for dirty politics. It would be easy enough for a dishonest political operative to create a Twitter account or a Facebook page with a name that sounds plausible and send out misinformation or offensive content in the guise of an opponent.
There's a tradition of satirical Twitter feeds about politicians, such as @fakesheiladixon, which tweeted its way through the former mayor's trial in November with bits like, "The @baltimoresun wonders how I am going to pay my lawyers? Mostly through raising your taxes and raiding the piggy banks of small children." (Democratic activist Steve Liebowitz fesses up to being @fakebobehrlich, but GOP wiseacres take note, @fakemartinomalley is available.)
But there's no reason politicos would have to be so honest about their dishonesty. A well-crafted fake post could get picked up by bloggers or mainstream journalists and take on a life of its own.
That's why Jared DeMarinis, the head of the state Board of Elections' Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division, is drafting what may be first-of-their-kind regulations governing how social media can be used in campaigns. He says he's not interested in regulating content but in making sure the communication between candidates and voters is straightforward and honest. The old tradition of putting authority lines on anything a campaign sends out translates imperfectly in the world of social media — it might work on Facebook, but on Twitter, where messages are limited to 140 characters, an authority line would crowd out any actual content.
His idea, which he plans to present to the elections board for approval at its June 3 meeting, would be to create a registry and post it on the Internet so that candidates can identify what social media pages and user names actually belong to them. The system wouldn't stop bad actors from trying to spread false or damaging information — the state has enough trouble doing that in the old-fashioned world of fliers and direct mail — but it would at least offer some protection for candidates and some means for voters to verify that the messages they're getting are real.