What happens to @PaulRyanVP?

Originally published December 3, 2012

For the more than half a million fans following Paul Ryan on the Twitter account the Romney campaign set up, there has been nothing but silence since Election Day.

No new tweets. No links. No photos. Nothing.

That’s because the account (@PaulRyanVP) doesn’t belong to the Wisconsin congressman. It belongs to Mitt Romney’s campaign. And for Ryan to retake his Twitter followers is more complicated than simply nabbing the password.

Though it’s not clear that Ryan would be violating campaign regulations by adopting his own veep handle, lawyers are confused about whether Ryan should go out and grab it anyway. While the political uses of technology have matured, the legal framework around them is still in its infancy.

There are no legally binding rules or precedents governing Twitter or Facebook accounts and simply handing them over to another candidate or party committee could violate the existing laws.

“As the technology has evolved, sometimes the [Federal Election Commission] rules don’t keep up,” said Michael Toner, a campaign finance attorney, who worked for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and served on the Federal Election Commission.

“Campaigns are increasingly spending so much money building these entire online cultures,” said GOP social media consultant Vincent Harris. “Campaigns are trying to figure out, especially when they lose, what to do with them.”

Unlike President Barack Obama’s campaign — which has said it won’t give its coveted data to the Democratic Party and is using it currently for grass-roots advocacy — Romney’s camp has said the 2012 GOP nominee plans to turn over much of his digital resources to the Republican National Committee.

Much of that transfer will include the types of materials that have become common hand-me-downs after elections: donor mailing lists, voter identification information and supporter email files.

The FEC has established rules for most of this information. Donor and supporter files have a value based on several factors, including the number of names on the list, how often they’ve been used and the specificity of the information. A campaign can give an unlimited amount of information to the national party. And it can rent its lists to other candidates or political groups, using third-party groups and following specific rules.

The Romney campaign is handing over its social media strategy files, said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the RNC. The campaign is also looking at transferring its social media accounts such as the Twitter and Facebook pages set up by the campaign, Kukowski confirmed.

But whether such online accounts can be legally transferred to another candidate or third-party group falls into an area of election law that is murky at best.

Campaigns invest considerable resources developing an online presence. Consultants are hired to generate more followers or Facebook likes. Romney’s campaign, for instance, had a staffer who traveled with the campaign whose entire responsibility was to tweet, take photos and post to Facebook.

Lawyers said that Romney’s campaign Twitter and Facebook accounts would likely be considered akin to a Rolodex that the FEC has previously said belongs to the candidate and thus can be taken with that candidate after an election.

Romney is holding on to his own Twitter account, said Zac Moffat, the digital director for the Republican’s campaign.

Since the election, Romney’s Twitter account (@MittRomney), which boasts more than 1.7 million followers, has largely been silent. His Facebook page got a small update, a photo of Romney and wife, Ann, in the kitchen with a Thanksgiving greeting.

“It’s his page, it’s his brand and he’s the one who ultimately has these 12 million likes and that’s a powerful amount of people,” Harris said. “Whether he wants to write a book and sell his book through his page, that’s a powerful place.”

If I were Romney, Harris said: “I would hold on to the keys of his digital kingdom.”

But the fate of several other social media accounts created by the Romney campaign is unclear, like Ryan’s vice presidential nominee Twitter and Facebook accounts or other pages that were arms of the 2012 campaign.

“I would encourage folks like Paul Ryan who have half a million followers on that account — that’s one of the largest political Twitter pages in the country — he’s going to want to try to find some way to get control of that account,” Harris said. “These are his followers, these aren’t the consultants’ followers, these aren’t the campaign’s followers, this are his followers.”

In addition to creating a Twitter account, Romney’s campaign also created a Facebook page for Ryan, which has more than 5 million “likes.” If Romney’s campaign gave the accounts to Ryan, it could exceed the federal limitations on campaign contributions from one candidate to another, which are set at $2,000, said campaign finance attorney Adam Bonin.

“The Ryan campaign could buy it from Romney, you could have that kind of transaction between campaigns,” Bonin said.

Ryan had a Twitter account (@RepPaulRyan) before he became the GOP vice presidential nominee, which has about half the followers of his VP account. His congressional staff has continued to use that account, but ethics rules also dictate that if he were to run for higher office again, or even in his own congressional campaigns, the official account can’t be used for campaigning. He also has a campaign Twitter account (@Ryan4Congress), although it has only 1,076 followers.

Campaigns are required to liquidate their assets after a campaign, generally items like office furniture and computers. Often, the campaigns sell the hardware and use the proceeds to balance their books.

“The FEC is at some point going to have to resolve: What side of the ledger do Twitter followers fall on?” Toner said.

There’s a case to be made that Twitter and Facebook followers have a real-world value. But the terms of those websites also allow the company to revoke those accounts without notice. And the selling of Facebook or Twitter accounts is rare, giving them little historical precedent.

“Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts only have a value within Facebook and Twitter, that’s the only way you can reach these people,” Bonin said.

They could also have some post-election value to third-parties, said Harris, who developed social media platforms for Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich’s campaigns.

“I had some people who came to me and offered to just buy the entire pages,” Harris said. “You can turn those pages around into a profit-making center.”

What may be a more difficult question to answer is if such entities have any political power once the election is over.

“A lot of the power of these pages are diminished the second that someone is declared an electoral loser,” Harris said. “Candidates can’t forget about these pages and they can’t forget about the power that these pages have and just let them go without being used.”

But almost a month after Election Day, Romney’s Facebook page still has more than 11 million likes — giving him, or anyone who controlled the page, access to the in-boxes and newsfeeds of all of those people.

If candidates are permitted to sell their assets, could they sell their Facebook or Twitter pages to an outside group or another candidate?

“Because authenticity matters so much in this space, I think that outside groups that are seeking to purchase lists that are generated by candidates and campaigns are going to find the value of such lists dissipate quickly,” Bonin said. “Folks will see it as spam if a candidate sells a list to an ideological group. Social media is about voluntary connection.”

“If you turn over the entire keys, I think you lose all credibility,” Harris said.

Even the legality of transferring social media accounts is murky.

“It would be helpful if a campaign that was looking to transfer a social media account if they would reach out to the FEC and seek an advisory opinion about their plans,” Bonin said. “They would see it as straightforward enough to provide some guidance because this issue is going to keep coming up.”

And getting an answer could keep these accounts out of the Internet graveyard.

“What really shouldn’t happen, all these folks shouldn’t spend all this time building up these audiences and then let these empty coffins sit out there online,” Harris said.


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