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Eyeing November, Political Groups Desiring To Reach Young Voters Look To Social Sites

This story was written by Amy Bingham, Daily Texan

Facebook and MySpace may no longer be just a way for college students to stay in touch.

As social networking sites such as these grow in popularity, other realms of society are signing up to tap into this gold mine of consumers, donors and, most importantly, voters. This year's presidential campaigns are no exception.

"Online campaigning is the way of the future," said College Republicans president Ryan Ellis. "It's time for everyone to jump on board."

Political organizations at the University of Texasrely on social networking sites such as Facebook to stay connected to their members on both the local and national level. UT's Students For Barack Obama, for example, relies on the site to inform members of meeting information, updates about the national campaign and voter registration information.

"Sites like Facebook make it easy to disseminate a large amount of information to a large amount of people at a relatively low cost," Ellis said.

While both parties have made an effort to integrate new media into their campaigns, Obama has gathered far more support through social networking than his Republican counterpart. His official Facebook page boasts more than 1.4 million supporters. McCain has a litte more than 227,000.

"Obama is targeting the young vote very effectively, and McCain needs to catch up on that," Ellis said.

UT adjunct journalism professor Bob Mann said Obama has embraced new media more because his campaign team is younger and newer to the presidential campaign scene.

"McCain's story is an old story," Mann said. "He has an older campaign that has to learn to change with the evolving media."

Social networking is the number one way to reach out to the youth, Ellis said, because most are comfortable with the sites.

Government junior Keith Wray said he was skeptical of the political information found on Facebook.

"Facebook is not the best source for reliable information; it is just campaign slogans," he said.

While networking sites focus on youth, Mann said their reach extends beyond college students.

"The older generation works hard to keep up with the younger generation," he said. "We are more accustomed to mainstream media, but even the mainstream media is talking about new media."

Mann said he saw both positives and negatives to the popularity of new media in political campaigns. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace make information readily accessible to large audiences, so the most minor event can be blown up into a huge scandal.

"Young voters have to remember that most of the content on these Web sites is unedited, unsupervised and not done by people of immense maturity," he said.

UT assistant journalism professor Homero Gil de Zuniga said this is the first year politicians have realized the power social networking sites have in mobilizing and motivating voters.

"The impact of social networking sites is still to be seen," Zuniga said. "While political campaigns have much to work on in this area, I think sites like Facebook will become ubiquitous in the future. Everyone will use them."