A professor of government at Bentley College in Massachusetts, Christine Williams (picture right) has been asking herself the same question since 2000: “Is the Web improving public debate, the political process and the campaigns? Back in 2000, she studied the web sites created by candidates for the senate and concluded that they “failed to employ a relationship marketing strategy that would create repeat “customers” for the services of candidates for public office and raise the level of political discourse for voters.” With the advent of the Web 2.0, are political hopefuls doing a better job of engaging with potential voters on the Web?

Williams definitely sees something happening with social networking sites. This year, she focused her attention on Facebook, an online meeting place for over 12 million college students. Ahead of the November elections, Facebook created entries for all U.S. congressional and gubernatorial candidates. Campaign staff could personalize the profiles and Facebook members could register their support and add comments.

“There is indirect evidence that Facebook is having an effect,” says Williams. “There is something going on in that community, some dynamics that can’t be explained by simple mathematical growth. Facebook supporters are responding to personal attributes - reacting to the profile content and to the emails from their Facebook friends - not simply exhibiting the ideological bent of their age group or the actual political climate.”

As evidence, Williams quotes several races in which Facebook members were overwhelmingly more enthusiastic about particular candidates than the rest of their age group. In the California gubernatorial race, for example, 44% of 18-29 year olds declared they had voted for Arnold Schwarznegger according to CNN exit polls. But on Facebook, over 65% of members were Schwarznegger supporters.

Another instance is the response to Barack Omaba’s potential presidential candidacy. “At the end of September, he had 700 supporters on Facebook. One month later, the number had grown to 7,000 when one should have expected something like 1,000 supporters,” says Williams.

Her next job is to do some mathematical modelling to separate the natural growth based on viral spreading and the influence of profiles and events, such as Omaba announcing that he would consider running. Williams would love some one-on-one time with some politically-active Facebook members. However, the company’s confidentiality policies prevent her from getting access to her subjects.

Williams predicts that social networking sites might be the next “big thing” in political campaigning because it offers candidates a low-cost, micro-targeting tool. “In 2004, it was MeetUp and blogs. This year, blogs were not as big. Facebook was important and YouTube was big too. However campaigners don’t like the lack of control on YouTube.” But the surprise might come from another corner. One possible scenario is that the next battle for the voters’ hearts might be played on mobiles.

To read the first article about social networking and politics click here: On the Web 2.0 campaign trail