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Obama and Facebook

President Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg take off their jackets before the start of their town hall meeting today at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto to discuss reducing the national debt , Calif. (AP)

From NBC's Kevin Hurd
With President Obama holding an online town hall at Facebook headquarters this afternoon, some are questioning how close the administration is -- and should be getting -- to the social media giant.
 
Two big headlines shine a light on the issue today. From the LA Times political blog, Politics Now: "With town hall, Obama-Facebook friendship continues." And in this morning's Politico, "Are Barack Obama and Facebook getting too friendly?"
 
It's easy to see why the Obama administration wants to get a jump on using this tool again with the presidential election gearing up. Today, the site is home to more than 500 million active users -- 30% of whom live in the United States. And for Facebook, it's another moment for the company to shine. In today's Politico, Peter Sealey, a business consultant who has served on Facebook’s advisory board, called it a "win-win" for both the president and Facebook. 
 
But some say mixing politics and business doesn't always make a good finish. “Large companies try to appeal to a mass audience, and it’s smart of them to be nonpartisan," said Aaron McLear, GOP political consultant and former spokesman for then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in today's Politico. "Administrations change. You want to have relationships and dialog with anyone in power. The better relationships you have with people in power, the better chance you have in getting things done for your company.”
 
In a phone interview this morning, First Read talked with officials at the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany (SUNY) about this issue.
 
Anthony Cresswell, the center’s deputy director, pointed out the risk runs deeper than being associated with the company. "There is a risk of potential ammunition for critics of [the president] being associated with Mark Zuckerberg." Essentially, past or future actions by the company's young CEO could bring with it Obama's name into the spotlight. "The president could be accused of endorsing that [action]."
 
Another question: Is today's online town hall a presidential function or a campaigning event? With Obama announcing his re-election bid earlier this month, it could be one or a little bit of both. As Theresa Pardo, the center’s director, explains, the answer may not be clear. "Facebook ensures communication flows between parties and information should flow two ways in a campaign. But how does that change as president? Does it change the expectation that he will always be there or does it threaten the expectation of accessibility with the audience?" Basically, should we expect President Obama to be conducting online town halls like Candidate Obama would? 

Whether it's a presidential move or a campaigning move, Facebook does provide the president a way to clearly send a message to those listening. University of Albany professor Theresa Harrison went on to comment about the open microphone that Facebook provides, saying, "The president is using Facebook as his broadcast platform. He doesn't have third channels to go through."

But that is only initially. Cresswell points out that a town hall on Facebook does not stop networks from analyzing and criticizing his comments.
 
How about other social media? According to these University at Albany officials, it is tough to judge the impact social media will play in this election. "There is no definitive research but we learned ordinary citizens don't follow candidates or government officials on sites like Twitter," said Natalie Helbig, the center’s program associate. That could sound like a blow to two GOP presidential hopefuls -- Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney -- who both announced their exploratory committees on Facebook and Twitter. But there is hope. While things are changing rapidly, the candidate who can adapt well and is on their game, may do well.

Cresswell says, "Things change rapidly. We need to look at social media overall and ask, where do we invest our limited time and energy?"
 
Campaign event or presidential event, Cresswell explains that Obama has a good start on that idea with today's town hall. "He gets it. He understands it. He knows how to get his message out to people. It's clear he'll use the strategy from last time around.”