Committee approves new rules for campaigning with social media

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By Megan Poinski

Is the person on the other side of that Facebook account really the candidate for senator or governor?

Voters hooked into Web 2.0 social media technologies will be able to find out easily under new emergency rules passed Tuesday by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review.

The new set of rules, proposed by the State Board of Elections, requires that official candidate social media accounts – such as Facebook – and micro-blogs – such as Twitter – include prominent “authority lines” on their home pages that state the name of the campaign committee and treasurer. The rules also require that online campaign advertisements take people to “landing pages” that clearly feature authority lines.

Passed by 10-1 vote, the board will start enforcing these emergency rules in two weeks. The new rules are only in effect for six months, and may be re-examined and tweaked after this election season by the next legislature, Committee Co-Chair Sen. Paul Pinsky said.

State Board of Elections Deputy Administrator Ross Goldstein and head of the Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division Jared DeMarinis told members of the committee that the new regulations extend longstanding rules about “authority” lines to social media in a way that makes sense.

Goldstein said that requiring candidates to put authority lines on campaign social networking accounts will prove to the public that they actually came from the candidate – and aren’t spoof sites that might harm a candidate’s message.

“It protects the candidate and the public,” Goldstein said. “You can say, ‘This is what I said. This is my piece.’  The public can look at this and say, ‘There is an authority line. I know the candidate said it.’”

The elections board unanimously passed the rules June 3, and they received strong endorsements from representatives from Facebook, Yahoo!, Google and AOL who testified at Tuesday’s hearing.

Without the new rules, elections officials said, the same rules that now apply to campaign information on paper would also apply to social media. This means that each campaign tweet, for example, would need to include the committee name and treasurer information – hard to include in a post that only allows 140 characters.

Corey Owens, a public policy associate for Facebook, said that the authority information would take up more than half of the characters allowed in a Facebook ad – a targeted link and photo that appears alongside a user’s Facebook account. And placing Facebook ads would be a good way to get information to voters, Owens said. There are 1.8 million Marylanders of voting age on Facebook – about 200,000 more than voted in the last gubernatorial election.

“This is to simplify implementation and bring the rules up to the 21st century and online, where campaigns are happening, whether you like it or not,” Owens said.

Regs only apply to campaign messages

Committee members peppered elections officials with questions about how the rules applied to their online presence. Goldstein and DeMarinis said that the rules only apply to broadcast campaign issues — meaning campaign-related e-mail blasts, campaign Facebook posts, campaign tweets, and campaign blog entries.

If the messages aren’t related to the campaign – e-mail blasts about legislation, personal Facebook posts about the Orioles, personal tweets about official actions, and policy blogs — the authority line does not have to be there. Also, campaign related e-mails between two people do not have to have the authority line because they are not broadcast.

The only committee member opposing the rules was Del. Michael Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican who argued that too many regulations will “have a chilling effect” on the way candidates use social networking to communicate with voters.

DeMarinis said that these rules came from the Board of Elections thinking of how social networking could be used in a campaign, and were not inspired by any situations in Maryland. Representatives from Facebook, Yahoo!, Google and AOL said Maryland is a leader in developing these types of guidelines.

Maryland and Florida are the only states that have any regulations on the books about campaigning on social networks, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. California, Wisconsin and Texas have also been looking at the issue.

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