The comments on Sarah Palin's Facebook page offer a relatively unbroken chain of adulation, applause, and approval: "Tell it LIKE IS MRS. PALIN." "God Bless you Sarah!! Thanks for all you do!!" "Palin 2012!!!!" No matter the topic of her posting—an endorsement of a candidate or a remark about energy policy—scores call for her to run for office.
It should not surprise you that the comments to posts she makes on her page are screened. For any high-profile politician, online comments are like town hall forums: Both appear to be spontaneous but are actually highly choreographed. In presidential town hall meetings, people sit in high-school gymnasiums and wear flannel as they jockey for the microphone. They almost seem genuine, but as they ask questions, it becomes clear they have been carefully selected. Each question to the candidate features the same sentiment: You're pretty wonderful, aren't you?
Palin's Facebook page is a key tool in her public brand management. She has used it effectively to project her message, appear connected with voters, and bypass the traditional media (while simultaneously using it to rebroadcast her message). In a recent Facebook post, she celebrated her 2 millionth fan on the site and the size of her reach. "Two million! Wow! That's more than some cable news shows. Thank you all and let's keep the momentum!"
How much work does it take to keep everything so sanitized? To help me find out, my colleague Jeremy Singer-Vine wrote a program to capture comments to Palin's page before the clean-up crew could arrive. (Here's an explanation of how Jeremy's program works.) All these posts were initially public, if only for a few minutes. We looked at the comments to 10 Palin posts over 12 days, capturing the deletions in the 24 hours after the posts were live. In that period, a rough average of 10 percent of total posts were deleted.
The deletions amount to a real-time look at how much effort and care Palin puts into protecting her public image. 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 (which Facebook might remove anyway if flagged). The kinds of posts that are likely to get you removed from the Palin comments section can be divided into categories (the comments have not been edited):
Mean comments about Sarah Palin. "Please go away from my wall. I do not like you or agree with any dumb thing you say or do."
Mean things about the people who say mean things about Sarah Palin. "if you dont like her posts LEAVE THE GROUP DUMBASS!!!!"
Racial or ethnic slurs. "America's greatest threat is Marxism and International Jewry/Zionism! We will never regain our Liberty and Freedom until we expel every Jew from America!"
Polite disagreement. "Sarah, perception is everything! I learned that in the military. All you have to do is disassociate yourself from those Tea Partiers that are indeed racist and the NAACP gones [sic] away," wrote one in response to Palin's post on the NAACP's charge that the Tea Party tolerated racism. "Even they [the NAACP] admit the Tea Party is not a racist organization. Mrs. Palin, I believe you to be an honorable Woman. You believe in your cause. Sometimes for the good of the cause one has to make a stand even to those that support the cause. Remember John Mccain, circa 2008 in which a woman stood up and called Candidate Obama a Muslim. The Honorable John Mccain rebuked her. This could be your moment."
Too much agreement. "Do us a favor Sarah, trap a few Wolves and ship em to D.C., they do eat Rats don't they? Have a great trip Sarah, God Bless."
Criticism of her children. "please dont let your daughter do a reality show :(but i love your family and you ..hope thats just a rumor from the liberals."
Anything about Obama's birth certificate or conspiracies related thereto, even in muted form. "Just so we're clear, Conspiracy theories about Obama's refusal to release his college records—lunacy. Conspiracy theories about Trig Palin—journalism."
Complaints about her endorsements of so many female candidates. "I am beginning not to like you (Sarah). You have endorsed every women candidate running. You are looking quite biased." (Actually, she's endorsed as many men as women.)
Excessive use of religious prophesy or imagery. "The ones I feel for is one day those in the media that are doing the way they are will come down .you are a threat to them and their evil ways. David only needed 5 stones to bring down the giant. and i belive those five stones had on them five letters JESUS. The road may get hard but one day you will know God gave you that to walk."
There are a host of benign posts deleted from supporters who simply disagreed with the person Palin chose to endorse in a particular note. 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 Grizzley, she's just another progressive in Rep. clothing. The 912 group I belong to and some of the other groups in the state are disappointed by this endorsement."
This caused a little stir among the commenters. "Why are the few comments expressing disagreement with this endorsement being deleted?" wrote one. " Just because some of us disagree with the endorsement doesn't mean that we don't follow Sarah Palin." Alfred Petross wrote, "I just wish you would listen to me as a resident of the 3rd Congressional District. All I am doing is voicing my opinion and my posts keep getting deleted...." (These comments were then deleted.) "Having my posts deleted were extremely disappointing," says Petross, who went on to post his letter to Palin on his Facebook page, "because I was under the impression that Sarah Palin was in fact a political activist who was all about hearing the opinions and voices of the constituents of the United States."
Though recent deletions seem heavy on these voices of protest, Palin's screener doesn't take out every voice of dissent. Indeed, the outcry over her endorsement of Carly Fiorina for the U.S. Senate in California prompted Palin to respond to her fans.
My efforts to get some insight from Palin's camp have so far gone unanswered. (Given how prolific Palin has been, and how carefully the posts are screened, they could be too busy.) This leaves us without explanations for some intriguing deletions. "Hey all Sarah fans! Come and 'like' Mike Huckabee on Facebook. Like Sarah, he is a common sense conservative. Sarah and Mike have ideas that will save this great nation." Many posts make innocuous requests that readers support causes or read Web pages. So why was this one about a potential rival for the Republican presidential nomination deleted?
Palin is far more rigorous with her Facebook friends than most other political figures. Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann,* and Scott Brown get the familiar trolls and mischief, but those comments stay on the page. (Over on Rand Paul's page, one poster is wishing cancer on another.) President Obama's page is perhaps the only other one that is so carefully tended. Though when we looked at the deletions on Obama's page, they were less than 1 percent of comments posted and surprisingly rather benign: "We the People are NOT unertaxed...YOU, Mr Obama are spending too much!"
Palin is a polarizing figure, which makes this kind of curation necessary to guard her reputation and keep her from being linked (literally if not figuratively) to anything controversial. There's no reason she should be responsible for the nutty posts on her Facebook page, but that doesn't mean her opponents won't try to put them there and then make her guilty by association. She's also wise to scrub the offensive posts of the kind the Republican National Committee only recently removed. So Palin never allows anything that might be considered mildly controversial.
Political strategists say that it's often hard to talk long-shot candidates out of running for office because they have so many friends and hangers-on telling them they deserve to be president. If that's true, then there's no political strategist alive who could persuade Sarah Palin not to run for president. She has 2 million Facebook friends telling her otherwise.
*Correction, Aug. 3, 2010: This article originally misspelled Michele Bachmann's first name.