Political Aspirations? Watch Out for Facebook, President Obama Says

President Obama has some sage advice for the Facebook generation: Be careful what you post online.


WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2009 —

Thinking of running for office? President Obama has some sage advice.

Last week, at a roundtable with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., the president was asked by a ninth grader about getting into politics.

"Well, let me give you some very practical tips. First of all, I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life," the president said.

Obama has been candid about his own pre-Internet youthful indiscretions, describing his brushes with trouble and drugs in his teens in his best-selling memoir, "Dreams from My Father."

But telling young adults today to show restraint in what they post online is perhaps a tall order, given their propensity for openness and sharing.

"It's hard to know whether or not they have a dif sense of privacy than previous generations or they simply have the equipment to compromise their privacy more than people in the past. The people in the '60s went naked in the streets," said George Washington University political science professor Michael Cornfield, who is also a vice president for 720 Strategies, a communications and media campaign consulting firm.

Nearly 40 percent of young adults have an online social networking profile and 60 percent of all teenagers do, according to research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Facebook is the world's largest online social network with more than 250 million active users. Many students seem well aware of the potential danger lurking online and know how it could affect their futures.

"I don't put any party pictures on my profile at all," said Taylor Edwards, a freshman at Georgetown University. But Edwards said many of his classmates do not think twice about posting potentially damaging pictures online.

Mariel Pullman, a senior at Georgetown, concurred. "I probably would not put compromising photos. I wouldn't put anything that I wouldn't say in person."

James Barnes, who has aspirations to get into politics in the future, said there is a simple way for people to make sure they don't run into trouble with what they post.

"I think they should conduct themselves online as they would offline," Barnes said.

Obama Advises Students: Be Careful on Facebook

Obama's Internet advice may have hit home back at the White House. Jon Favreau, the president's chief speechwriter, landed in hot water last year when an inappropriate picture, in which he is seen groping a cardboard cutout of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, turned up on a friend's Facebook page.

Favreau quickly apologized, but the incident showed that it's not just what you post online that can come back to haunt you.

As the hyperconnected millennial generation grows up, society's standards may evolve. But could pictures of youthful mistakes, posted on Facebook, prevent someone from getting a dream job in politics or another industry?

Political science professor Cornfield said the best approach is to just be up front.

"If you are honest and that really is you in the photograph and you admit it and think it's wrong, I think most Americans are willing to give people, even politicians, a fair shake," he said.

Or perhaps voters will just have to take their future candidates as they are -- with their entire life history just a click of a mouse away.