Web surfers make friends with Swiss ministers

The Swiss cabinet is in the process of being mobbed by its new virtual friends Keystone

Internet users can get virtually, albeit unofficially, closer to Switzerland's cabinet thanks to the social networking website Facebook.

This content was published on January 3, 2008 - 17:38

An economics student from Neuchâtel in the western part of the country set up the seven ministers' profiles on the site, a move that has yet to draw a reaction from the government.

Bertil Suter is the man behind the Facebook coup. He created the profiles in December after considering the popularity of others already on the site such as Roger Federer's (although he admits he doesn't know if the tennis player is actually behind it.)

"There are no important Swiss political players on Facebook," he told swissinfo. "My action is a way of making this country's politics become more alive on the web."

Suter says that most politicians and parties have little beyond a static presence on the internet with their websites.

So far there has been no official reaction to Suter's move, although the federal administration has apparently discussed the matter.

When asked by the student if they had any objections, officials said that as long as the content was not defamatory or plain wrong, there was no reason to intervene.

Suter says that to his knowledge, this is the first time an entire cabinet has appeared on Facebook. A few ministers elsewhere have made use of the opportunity, such as France's higher education and research minister Valérie Pécresse.

The student sees Facebook as an opportunity for the Swiss cabinet to get out and meet people, something they themselves admit they don't do enough.

Electoral weapon?

Politicians in the United States and Australia have been making regular use of Facebook and other social networking sites in the run-up to elections. But specialists warn that mingling with voters online might not actually translate into success at the ballot box.

As it happens Suter's decision to create the government profiles has little to do with getting votes – the Swiss elections took place in October - and more with making Facebook's largest group of users, under-30s, more aware of Swiss politics.

"I want to get in touch with people who don't necessarily read newspapers," he added. "The cabinet page I have set up could become a discussion platform for Swiss politics and could help people develop their political activities."

Suter, who keeps his own political opinions to himself and is not affiliated with any party, says the aim for the time being is to convince as many people as possible to become "friends", as they are called on Facebook, with the ministers.

So far Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has attracted the most people to her profile, ahead of Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, a fact that Suter says might have something to do with reports about his actions in the French-speaking media.

The transport, environment and communications minister, Moritz Leuenberger, who has his own blog, has connected with the most German-speaking friends.

The student says that so far 99 per cent of the feedback he has received has been positive, encouraging him to get in touch with the ministries later this month.

Suter hopes to convince at least one minister to actually use Facebook and interact with their new friends. He says the biggest hurdle might be the time factor for these busy politicians.

"They have to understand that it would only take half an hour of their time every week to update their profiles," he added.

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Social networking

Social networking is a phenomenum defined by linking people to each other in some way.

Digg is a popular example of a social network (using social bookmarking). Users work together to rate news and are linked by rating choices or identification of other members.

Generally, social networks are used to allow or encourage various types of activity, be it commercial, social or a combination of both.

Two of the best-known are Myspace and Facebook. Facebook has around 200,000 users in Switzerland, with 80 per cent belonging to the under-30s age group.

People use this service to keep up with friends, upload photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.

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