January 10, 2008
The Ron Paul Candidacy and Facebook Controversy

The Internet is abuzz with politics. And it's that time every four years when suddenly everyone cares about civic engagement and democracy and all that. I'd like to see more of that type of engagement on a local level, including form myself, but nevertheless we're swept up in the frenzy of national politics.

This year, with so many candidates in the mix, it seems as if every election is a surprise. Online, it's been quite interesting as well. There's no doubt that Barack Obama is carrying unprecedented amounts of interest from young voters, and there's a corresponding amount of buzz in the blogosphere, on YouTube, and elsewhere.

For those of you who follow these spaces regularly, it will come as no surprise that there's a comparable amount of buzz from a much more unsuspecting candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. As opposed to Obama, who is the youngest candidate in this year's election, Paul is the second-oldest, following only Mike Gravel. Further, Paul is a Republican fiscal conservative to an extreme, a fairly strict libertarian at heart.

Henry Jenkins writes in Steel Chair to the Head about citizens who are disenchanted by the social conservatism of the right and the liberal fiscal policies of the left, the sentiment that Jesse Ventura tapped into with a message of preserving both fiscal conservatism and civil liberties in his bid for the Minnesota governorship. Paul seems to have tapped into this wing of politics. In the debate last week, he applauded Obama, for instance, who he said he is in agreement with on issues of civil liberties, while berating fellow Republicans for military spending and inflation that he blames as much on the military activities, corporate bailouts, and other activities of the right as he does on the "welfare state" of the left.

And a substantial number of citizens online are interested in his cause. This amounted to 10 percent of the vote in Iowa and 8.6 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, certainly not impressive numbers for someone being likely to win the presidency but impressive considering how outside the usual rhetoric of politicians Rep. Paul's message is.

In our study of YouTube and online social networks in the past few months, we've encountered Paul often. Yet, I'm surprised continually when talking politics, both in Kentucky during the holidays and to some folks here in Massachusetts, that many still don't have a clue who Ron is, or at best only have a vague recollection, most likely of Paul's opposition to the war in Iraq (the issue Paul brings up most often in debates and mainstream appearances--see here and here).

This lack of mainstream knowledge about Paul's broader political positions plays very well into what seem feel are the conspiracy theories of Rep. Paul's supporters, many who have become known for their zeal. Take the Google employee who quit his job and moved to New Hampshire to campaign for Paul full time. Or the fact that he raised a lot of eyebrows with his raising several million dollars in a single day on the 5th of November. Even more impressive, there's the fact that Paul won the "election" on MySpace for the Republican side.

Then, there was the Facebook debacle (not referring to the first Facebook debacle, which I didn't even know about until I was trying to find a link to the one from last weekend). I was interested in Facebook's sponsorship of the debate on ABC last weekend, so I logged into the site and followed along. What struck me as interesting was how massive the support for Paul was on the site, how he had substantially more support than other candidates in the debate for Facebook users, and how it seemed as if 3/4ths or more of the Web forum discussion was devoted to Dr. Paul. Some people were debating for him, others asking who he was, and yet others annoyed with the overeagerness or blind support of some of the Paul-ites.

But what I was watching on my computer screen registered in sharp contrast with what I was watching on TV. For most rounds, the rather meek Paul was repeatedly cut off by other candidates, almost never addressed by the moderator, and not even mentioned once in the post-debate wrap-up, even by the Facebook representative when asked what discussion was happening online. Some of the Paul supporters (actually, many of them) started threads about a conspiracy, made even worse when some of them seemed to disappear.

Then, MSNBC reported on the poll and claimed Mike Huckabee was winning, even though the numbers they included below showed Paul beating Huckabee by a substantial margin (see here). That, coupled with Paul's exclusion from the Republican roundtable on Fox News the next day, to even the protest of the New Hampshire Republican Party, gave plenty of fuel to the fire for Paul supporters.

As a journalist myself, I'm of the opinion that the media should do as little as possible to shape outcomes. In fact, in political elections, I feel that its' the media's job to give more attention to those who are getting ignored in the process, so my eyebrow is raised at the way in which Paul, Bill Richardson, and others have been continuously ignored. It's always chicken-and-egg, when it comes to media attention, in these situations.

But I would have to consider Paul's igniting such passionate response from a substantial number of online voters, and particularly among the young, as a fiscally conservative 70-something politician from Texas to be among the most interesting political stories of this campaign and proof that there remains a substantial group of potential voters, alienated by the two-party split, that all candidates should think about.

In the wake of the Facebook debacle and Paul's showing in New Hampshire (below his support in Iowa but still within striking distance of Giuliani's numbers after beating Rudy in Iowa), it will be interesting to see how his campaign handles the next few weeks, and if there will be any lasting impact on how the Paul campaign helped shift the agenda for the 2008 election.