John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate, was scrolling through the comments on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page to check the reaction to her endorsement of a candidate when he noticed something odd.
“Readers were responding to comments that didn’t exist anymore,” Dickerson told me in an interview. “I thought, this is being screened.”
Dickerson kept looking and found long strings of comments that were “uniformly positive.” It was hard to find even a small handful of the sort of negative or mean-spirited comments that are typically littered throughout online comment sections.
“You expect it to be screened for spam or vulgarity,” he said. “But what else?”
So Dickerson, who is also a political analyst for CBS News, decided to find out. What he discovered was that a wide range of comments are scrubbed from Palin’s Facebook page, although you wouldn’t know it without doing some digging.
That’s what Dickerson and his colleague Jeremy Singer-Vine did. Singer-Vine wrote a program that captured comments within minutes of being posted and checked back later to see if they were deleted. Dickerson and Singer-Vine used the program on 10 Palin posts over 12 days, finding that an average of 10 percent of the comments were deleted.
“The deletions amount to a real-time look at how much effort and care Palin puts into protecting her public image,” Dickerson wrote in a post this week on Slate. “It’s not just the number of posts that are screened out that gives some indication of how seriously Palin’s team is monitoring things. The superfine mesh through which posts are sifted also gives an indication of the work involved. You don’t get erased just for using vulgarity or pushing spam.”
Palin, or someone speaking in her voice, posts a note or a status update to her Facebook page almost every day and sometimes more often. It’s common for more than 1,000 people to offer feedback and for five to 10 times that many to “like” her status.
With that volume of interaction, her Facebook page appears to be a spontaneous, authentic look at Palin’s supporters. However, the vigilance with which certain comments are deleted demonstrates how even a massive, active social presence can be manipulated.
Dickerson divided the deleted comments into categories such as “Mean comments about Sarah Palin,” “Mean things about the people who say mean things about Sarah Palin,” “Complaints about her endorsements of so many female candidates,” and “Excessive use of religious prophesy or imagery.”
“There are a host of benign posts deleted from supporters who simply disagreed with the person Palin chose to endorse in a particular note,” Dickerson wrote. “A typical one addressed her endorsement of Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire for U.S. Senate: ‘I can’t believe Sarah endorsed Ayotte. Ayotte is not a Momma Grizzly, she’s just another progressive in Rep. clothing …’ ”
Also deleted are racial slurs and comments from conspiracy folks, those who cling to the (incorrect) notion that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is questionable, Dickerson wrote.
He took a look at the Facebook pages of some other politicians, from Mitt Romney to Obama, and found that they did not delete the sorts of comments that were pulled from Palin’s page. Dickerson said that less than 1 percent of the comments on Obama’s page were deleted.
Dickerson told me he is not suggesting that Palin, who has more than 2 million Facebook fans, is guilty of some “huge moral failing.” But by deleting so many comments, he argued, Palin is distorting the notion that Facebook can provide a platform for an honest and open give-and-take between public servants and the public.
He said Palin’s practice is more like a town hall meeting where friendly questions are planted in the audience — it looks genuine, but it’s not. “There are expectations that social media will provide more authentic communication,” he said.
Alan Silberberg, the founder of Silberberg Innovations, writes frequently about technology and politics. He said it’s terrible for any politician to delete comments as Palin has done. “It’s like a politician getting a letter faxed to their office and then denying it exists,” he told me. “It’s a form of constituent communication.”
According to Silberberg, most of the politicians who use social media fall into one of two camps: They either use Facebook or Twitter to engage their constituents in meaningful discussions, or they block all comments and use social media merely to post statements and press releases.
He now wonders how many politicians are deleting comments like Palin is doing on her Facebook page. But figuring that out is no easy task. Silberberg said it would be easy to track deletions in a Twitter account because there would be a trail on Google; it would be much more difficult to do on Facebook.
Politicians need to come clean, Silberberg said, and post disclaimers like those on news sites that explain up-front what sort of comments are deleted. “Otherwise,” he said, “they are just playing games.”
Dickerson, though, suspects other politicians will follow Palin’s lead. “She’s sort of setting up best practices,” he said. “Future presidential candidates will probably do this as well.”