News Corp will soon be able to track and monitor online donations made to presidential candidates through its MySpace subsidiary, giving the media group an increasingly prominent role in the 2008 presidential election.
This involvement in candidates’ fundraising is new territory for News Corp, which, until now, has limited its interest in presidential elections to media coverage via its print and broadcast outlets.
MySpace, a social networking site that has more than 60m users in the US, is working with all the prospective candidates, offering tutorials on how to create effective personal profile pages.
Each candidate has also been offered a “viral fundraising tool” which can be used to raise money from grassroots supporters. MySpace is relaunching and improving the tool, and with the new version will be able to track how much money has been pledged to each candidate.
MySpace said it had not decided whether it would monitor donations made via the tool. “We have not made any decisions about whether we will even track the data,” the company said. “These judgments have not been made. We are at a very early stage.”
However, Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, a non-partisan research organisation, said News Corp’s involvement in online candidate fundraising “raised interesting questions”.
The company was acting “like a mass bundler”, or a fundraiser that organised lots of small donations for candidates, he said. “It creates the appearance of gaining access or influence. You get a lot of influence if you bundle hundreds of contributions. Your name will be remembered [by the candidate].”
It is unclear how much money presidential candidates will generate through MySpace, although individual donations are capped at $500 per person.
The site and its “Impact” political channel are rapidly growing in popularity. Meanwhile, online donations have become an important part of political fundraising.
“We view this as we view all of our initiatives: it emanates from what our users are telling us they want,” said Jeff Berman, MySpace’s general manager of video and senior vice-president of public affairs.
He added there had been a clamour for information about candidates from the MySpace community. “We started to see a real uptick in political activity a year and a half ago.” Hurricane Katrina and the mid-term elections last November were catalysts, he said.
But while the fundraising function is servicing a need, it also puts News Corp, which recently made an unsolicited $5bn bid for Dow Jones, in new territory. As it provided the service to all candidates, “there could be a question about whether MySpace is to be regarded as having made a [political] contribution”, said Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of law with the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mr Westen agreed. “To create a website that a candidate can use to raise money might be viewed as a contribution.”
However, all the prospective candidates from both main parties have been offered MySpace tutorials to show their campaign teams how to create effective personal pages. Prof Lowenstein said that as MySpace was offering the service to all candidates “in an even-handed way” it was unlikely it would be classified as a political gift.
The Federal Election Commission allows companies to provide online services to political candidates.
Internet donations could favour candidates who did not sit in the political centre ground, said Prof Lowenstein. “Those further from the centre will do better in internet campaigns because the people who support them tend to be more enthusiastic. It had that effect on Howard Dean in 2004.”
The MySpace community include people of all political persuasions, so the company’s fundraising tool and political channel serve several purposes, said Mr Berman.
“It serves community members who want to create digital [fundraising] storefronts for candidates and it helps the candidates who are part of the MySpace community. Everyone in the company is excited. Any time you can improve the experience of users and improve the political process of the country then you’re doing a good thing.”