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Faking it on Facebook: Phony political pages surface

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become major new tools for politicians to connect with voters during a campaign and for elected officials to stay in touch with constituents.

Fake Draft Bob Fletcher Facebook and Twitter pages

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become major new tools in politics, both for those hoping to connect with voters during a campaign and for elected officials trying stay in touch with their constituents.

It seems to works. Consider the massive new media efforts used in the Obama campaign.

But there’s a dark side: Many fake Facebook pages — designed to demean or satirize politicians, subtly or heavy-handedly — have surfaced in Minnesota and around the country. As they are discovered, the fake sites and pages are usually taken down because they violate the terms of use.

A fake Draft Bob Fletcher page has recently shown up on Facebook. It purports to be a page urging people to draft Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher to run for governor. But a quick review shows that it’s a phony, with some ham-handed references to the arrests during the Republican National Convention.  And there’s a totally unsublte faked letter from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Under the “religion” section of the page, it says: “I am God.”

For the record, Fletcher says he has no interest in running for governor. Nor is he God.

Whoever put this page up did a lot of work. There are 336 purported friends (Jiminy Cricket and Maggie Simpson?), lots of group associations and photos of police actions during last year’s GOP convention in St. Paul.

And because it’s a “Draft Bob” page, and doesn’t purport to be his personal page, it might skirt the Facebook rules that forbid phony pages.

New tools
There’s no doubt that social media has quickly become a major force in politics. Candidate Barack Obama used online tools to communicate with supporters, and now the White House is searching for friends in all the net places.

Politicians and their staffs are now expected to use the web to communicate faster and more comprehensively than ever. It sure didn’t help the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain when he admitted he really didn’t know how to use a computer.

Locally, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Rybak have been active on Facebook and Twitter.

Many legislators are, too. (There were a few times during the past legislative session when I thought a few members were being a bit too active on Twitter, sending out their every thought about those testifying, or disparaging a speaker.)

Easy to fake
But the relative anonymity of these sites has made it attractive to troublemakers who want to have some fun with a candidate, or even take some cheap shots.

A fake Sarah Palin site was discovered and taken down earlier this month. (But she does have a real one, too.)

And during last year’s RNC, fake Facebook pages were posted for many local officials, including Fletcher, Coleman and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.

Sheriff’s investigators tracked down the offenders, although they won’t say who they were and charges have not been filed. Investigators also persuaded Facebook to shut down the phony sites.

One of the terms of use on the Facebook site says: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.”

Another says: “You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.”

Still, pages are easy to fake and it’s up to the real person who feels they’ve been punked to get Facebook to pull the pages. And it’s not easy; there are reports that e-mails on violations take  days or weeks to be answered.

Ramsey County Sheriff’s Investigator Tony Samec worked on the investigation into the fake pages during the RNC and said it took some time to get the pages pulled, even though it was an official law enforcement action.

“With Facebook and MySpace, there’s no way for them to verify whose making a profile,” Samec said this week. “Someone could make up a Joe Kimball page and say anything they want about you, and you’d have no recourse but to contact [the site] and tell them it’s not you. And I’m not sure how long that would take.”

(FYI: My Facebook page is legit.)

Even though those RNC fake pages clearly were clearly identify thefts because they purported to be the pages of real politicians — unlike the current Draft Bob Fletcher page, which only pretends to be a group claiming to support him for governor — there is little in the law to help with investigations, Samec said.

“There’s not a lot of statutes or legal recourse that’s helpful to us in dealing with this,” he said. No charges in those cases were filed, although he said there are still open investigations.

Facebook and other sites will turn over the IP addresses of those creating fake sites if forced to by a court order.

“So a lot of times we can get some good information while investigating, Samec said.

Spam is Spam
Bob Hume, communications director for Mayor Coleman in St. Paul, says fake pages are something politicians are learning to handle.

“It’s something we’ve had to deal with in several places, but not just with the RNC. Spam is spam, and it’s always a challenge,” he said. “Ultimately, there was a real difference for us between people letting their thoughts be known under their own names on our pages and those who created a fake profile in the mayor’s name and started going out and adding others to their account by passing themselves off in a fraudulent way.”

In recent months, Coleman has been more active on his own page and with Twitter, which makes it less likely that someone would mistake a fake page for the real one, Hume said.

And while they may be a pain, Hume doesn’t see fake pages as much of a threat to democracy.

“[T]here are always going to be folks who disagree, and it’s totally their right to do so,” he said. “And thinking about it in the context of all the things I’ve encountered working in this field, this was one of the more ineffectual and easy to counteract things I’ve come across.”

Samec said the danger is that some people might mistake the phony page for the real thoughts and views of a politician.

In the case of the Draft Bob Fletcher page, the sheriff says he hasn’t seen it, but has heard of its existence.

“I’ve been told it was set up by supporters of the RNC8 [protesters at the convention who’ve been charged], so I expect this silliness will continue through the end of their prosecutions,” Fletcher said.

“And again, I’m not a candidate for governor.”

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County politics.