In what could take effect before a Sept. 14 primary election, Maryland is poised to be the first state to require political candidates identify their online social media sites.

Approved last week by the State Board of Elections, the rules will require any social media account created by a politician or committee -- in promotion or opposition to a candidate -- to disclose the identity of the person or committee responsible for the account in the profile or prominently on the landing or home page. The rules, which still need the approval of the Maryland General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, would also require campaigns to retain records of social media communications for one year.

"What the rules say is, 'Listen, when you use social media networking sites and try to communicate, your communications are treated like any other types of communications with the general public, just like you would do on a TV ad,'" said Jared DeMarinis, Maryland State Board of Elections candidacy and campaign finance director. "It brings clarity to the process, and for the general public brings a sense that they can know where to find an official communication by a candidate."

Political figures are increasingly using social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others to broadcast their messages in a cheap, timely manner.

"Political campaigns are using Facebook to organize and communicate with voters in a way unimaginable a decade ago," Facebook Public Policy Communications Manager Andrew Noyes wrote in an e-mail. "Candidates are using Facebook as an increasingly important resource to reach voters directly, without having to go through the traditional media filter or pay for television and radio ads."

At the same time, digital mudslingers with malicious intent have taken advantage of the Internet's unregulated nature to create false accounts under the guise of well known politicians and campaigns. While some are obvious parodies, such as the fake Twitter accounts of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Apple CEO Steve Jobs, others are more deceptive.

On top of such concerns, DeMarinis said as candidates file for office, many have questions about how the "standard authority line" requirement would be interpreted as it pertains to social media. The authority line is essentially the required small print at the bottom of a campaign billboard or at the end of a political TV or radio ad that tells viewers or listeners the party responsible for the content.

Citing the state's proactive approach, DeMarinis said the rules will modernize old laws and help people better recognize misinformation. "We want to make sure the general public knows the distinction between what's official and what's not, so they can make informed decisions."

The approach has been lauded by Internet giants like AOL, Google and Facebook, all of which had representatives present at last week's election board meeting. "Facebook is pleased that the Maryland Board of Elections is now leading the way for the rest of the country in making it clear to campaigns how they can legally use social media to reach voters," stated a Facebook posting on the recently unveiled "U.S. Politics on Facebook" page, which highlights the use of the social networking site by politicians, elected officials and political campaigns. It's run by Facebook.

DeMarinis was explicit in saying the requirements won't infringe on First Amendment rights as related to the political process. "We're not getting knee-deep involved," he said. "We're just dealing with candidates and political communications and focusing on longstanding laws about campaign material and bringing those laws to the present era."

 

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer