Published: January 28, 2009

When Friends Aren’t Really Friends


NANCY SHENKER wasn’t surprised when a local Westchester County politician asked to be her friend on Facebook. A marketing consultant for 20 years, she knows a lot of people. She consented, she says, because she liked his politics and liked him personally, that is, until he began poaching her Facebook friends — all 200 of them. Many said they received invitations to parties that turned out to be fund-raisers. Disgusted, Ms. Shenker de-friended the politician, a city councilman in a nearby town, whose name she declined to provide because she said she did not want to embarrass him.

“It would be like if I had a dinner party at my house, and he came in and started handing out campaign literature,” said Ms. Shenker, of Chappaqua.

But it didn’t end there. Ms. Shenker bumped into the politician at a party, and he asked her why she had de-friended him. When she explained why, he apologized and promised to stop. Satisfied, Ms. Shenker once again allowed him into her Facebook circle, until he began poaching again. She de-friended him once again, for good.

Politicians, from President Obama to small-town mayors, now use social networks like Facebook to expand their supporter base and communicate directly with people, especially Internet-savvy younger voters. Mr. Obama is credited with revolutionizing the strategy of using the Web to raise millions of dollars for campaigning.

But fund-raising on Facebook, a site many use for play — in some cases, intimate play — raises a question of etiquette in the world of virtual communication: When is it acceptable for politicians to call someone a friend, when they actually are looking for support, both financial and political? Politicians can set up a regular account on Facebook, just like any teenager with endless lists of so-called friends who have access to each other’s personal posted information, or they can register as a politician, and their contacts are referred to as supporters.

To list people as friends, when the Facebook user actually wants them as their supporters, is considered bad form by many users of Facebook, because they say it creates a sense of intimacy that may not really exist. Some politicians’ Facebook pages, while they purport to be personal, are actually monitored and run by staff members or volunteers.

As Ms. Shenker puts it, “Don’t pretend you want to hang out with someone and then hit him or her up for money.”

The phenomenon is no surprise, said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, which analyzes the use of technology by politicians. One page is authentic. The other reads like propaganda.

“The more authentic a candidate can appear to his supporters, the more credible his or her message,” Mr. Rasiej said.

New York State Assemblyman Greg Ball, whose district includes Westchester County, says he recently purchased several e-mail lists to draw people to his personal Facebook page, which he hopes to make one of the centerpieces in his campaign for Congress.

Councilman Peter Cammarano of Hoboken, N.J., uses his personal page to join Facebook groups like Hoboken Young Professionals or Hoboken Lawyers Alliance. Once in, he posts notes on the group’s bulletin board alerting members to fund-raisers. He says it’s far more productive to find potential supporters that way than standing outside a ShopRite handing out fliers, where he does not know if the people he approaches even live in Hoboken.

Supporters like being considered friends, both online and off. Making them feel important can foster the relationship, said Richard Zeoli, who is running for freeholder in Sussex County, N.J.

“Look at the private dinner the new chief of staff hosted for the high-level donors and the V.I.P. access they received during the inauguration,” Mr. Zeoli said.

But the technology is developing faster than the rules of etiquette. Most political operations know it’s not O.K. to phone people during dinner, but the rules for online engagement are yet to be established, said Scott Shields, a political consultant with White Horse Strategies L.L.C. in Rockaway, N.J. “Still, when you hear about things like what that Westchester politician did, it sets off alarm bells in people’s minds. It’s not something that would pass most people’s smell test,” Mr. Shields said.

Of course, by drawing people to their personal Facebook pages, politicians are essentially invading their own privacy. They are limited in what they can post and must carefully screen their friends, knocking out those who post risqué photos or lewd messages.

Bill Finch, the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., said he was amazed at what people will say online. As a state senator, he had a Web site and was forced to shut down its blog because the discussions turned nasty, he said.

“I don’t know if there are a lot of mental issues out there, but there are a lot of angry people who don’t know how to behave themselves,” Mr. Finch said.

But politicians with personal pages on Facebook risk revealing too much, sometimes to their opponents. When Craig M. Johnson, an incumbent Democratic state senator from Long Island, ran for re-election in November, he was promised the Independence Party’s line, an advantage because it meant his name would appear twice on the ballot. To his surprise, a registered member of the Independence Party began circulating petitions seeking the ballot line herself. The senator’s staff looked at the Independence candidate’s Facebook page and saw she counted among her friends the son of Mr. Johnson’s Republican opponent, an indication his rival was behind the woman’s candidacy, Mr. Johnson said. In the end, the woman declined the nomination, and through a series of political machinations, the Republican candidate received the Independence line.

“It was clearly a political play to get the party line,” Mr. Johnson said.

But politicians using personal pages for outreach — particularly those already in office — may create disappointment if constituents mistakenly believe they have direct contact with their representative, and their correspondence goes unanswered.

Staff members for Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts had just that concern when they set up a Web site for the governor, according to Christine Williams, a political science professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. But Dr. Williams, who interviewed members of the governor’s staff for a research paper, said the site’s benefits outweighed that fear when a constituent posted a comment criticizing a town pedestrian walk sign, and the poster’s local alderman went on the site and responded. The two met to try to resolve the issue.

But perhaps it is the politicians who are realizing there is a difference between real friends and supporters. Dr. Williams said that in the 2008 presidential primary, when a candidate withdrew from or lost a race, a significant number of people went online and rescinded their support.

“De-friending, on personal Facebook pages, is not that common because of the embarrassment and anger it might generate,” she said. “But people do de-support political candidates.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company