May 26, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Maryland political candidates may soon have to clearly identify their campaigns on social media sites, as state elections officials seek to clarify legal language written before the Internet age.
A draft proposal for the regulation is expected to be presented June 3, to the State Board of Elections, which would need the endorsement from four of its five members. More and more politicians have flocked to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms in recent years, as they provide relatively cheap, far-reaching access to the public in a timely manner. In turn, there have also been a number of fake accounts set up under public officials' names, with attempts to spread rumors and other misinformation.
"Our goal is simply to clarify ... in light of these new mediums," said Ross Goldstein, Maryland State Board of Elections deputy administrator.
Goldstein, speaking on behalf of Board of Elections Candidacy and Campaign Finance Director Jared DeMarinis, said he didn't know what precipitated the proposal, but that questions surrounding the use of campaigning via Twitter and other social media sites were recently raised.
Just as "standard authority lines" must be placed or broadcast in print, TV or radio ads -- which identify the name of the committee and/or person responsible for the content -- the social media campaign pages would feature a similar addendum, Goldstein said. Just how that will be achieved remains unseen.
"We're just trying to figure out how to have this authority line requirement be incorporated into the new realm of social media," he said. "Obviously people are doing a lot of online campaigning, and we're not looking to change that, but want to be involved in how people know who is responsible for the material."
The proposal would clarify the existing standard authority lines requirement to include social media sites, he said. "It's just coming up with some ground rules," Goldstein said. "We're trying to make this as reasonable as possible."
Maryland State Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington County, supports any proposal that would increase transparency in this arena. Munson, who is running for re-election, was taken aback a couple months ago upon realizing that a Facebook fan page created by a political rival was later renamed Fans to Oust the Liberal Senator Don Munson.
Some of those fans included prominent Republican colleagues of Munson's, who informed him of the fan page name change. "It was a misuse of the electronics," Munson said. "And it raised an ethical question about whether you can use people in a manner like that -- this is childish, but it goes to ethics as well."
Although the page was taken down after Munson's rival was contacted, he says it shouldn't have been an issue in the first place. "The only thing you have going for you, in public life anyway, is your reputation," he said. "And when people do things that can destroy or damage your reputation, without you even knowing it, there's something wrong with the system."
At least one social media site is attempting to address the issue, though it's far from being a bulletproof model.
The microblogging site Twitter is testing a verification feature to help prevent "identity confusion." But it's only in its infancy stages, as it's starting with "well known accounts that have had problems with impersonation or identity confusion," such as popular artists, athletes, actors, public officials and public agencies, its site states.
"We're working to establish authenticity with people who deal with impersonation or identity confusion on a regular basis," the site says.
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