Sunday, December 8, 2013
The Sept. 18 email from an Angus King campaign staffer to the interns was marked urgent. "Take action!!" was stripped across the top in a bold font.
The problem? Unflattering reader comments posted below an online news story about King's campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.
"There are 11 comments as of 4 p.m., almost all negative," staffer Adam Lachman wrote. "Can you please take time to comment on this article and help correct the record?"
Over the next hour, King's interns and volunteers, most using screen name aliases, peppered the Bangor Daily News story with comments that echoed talking points suggested by Lachman. One commenter, dubbed "Mysteriousways7," reprinted Lachman's suggestions nearly verbatim, then added a second post with a link to "Standing Up for Truth," a King video also suggested by Lachman.
Lachman made two similar requests on Sept. 9 and Sept. 18 to post comments on news stories appearing on the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald websites.
The email and several others obtained by freelance writer Crash Barry, a vocal critic of King and his Senate candidacy, illustrate how the campaign deployed volunteers to comment, often anonymously, on online news stories to counter attacks and amplify support for King.
Although King may be criticized for the practice, he's not the only one to use it. Political operatives say that using online readers' comments, blogs and other forums have become part of modern campaigns that use any platform available to inflate support, project messages and counter opponents.
"As long as there have been chances for political campaigns to get a free shot at getting their message out, they've done it," said Dan Demeritt, a political consultant who has worked on several campaigns, including Gov. Paul LePage's. "This happens all the time, absolutely."
Crystal Canney, King's spokeswoman, said the campaign was engaging in the same activity as its opponents.
"They all do it," Canney said. "I dare say that when you see a group of negative comments, or a group of positive comments, that those comments are affiliated with a campaign in some way."
Not surprisingly, King's opponents say the former governor has portrayed himself as a different kind of politician.
"This is in keeping with the disingenuous campaign that he's run," said Lance Dutson, the campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers. "He makes these pledges about negative ads and out-of-state money and he ends up running same old campaign that anybody else would run."
He added, "It doesn't surprise me at all that the enthusiasm that might appear online is bought and paid for, as opposed to actual grass-roots enthusiasm."
Dutson denied that the Summers campaign used similar tactics. However, he said the Summers campaign has told its county chairmen that "engaging in the online discussion is a way to help." He said he's seen organized efforts by other campaigns to use reader comments.
"But we're not giving marching orders for folks to comment on specific articles," Dutson said.
A spokeswoman for Cynthia Dill, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said that the campaign did not engage in the practice.
Dennis Bailey, a political operative and former communications director for King when he was governor, said campaigns aren't being honest if they deny using anonymous reader comments to create a false sense of public opinion. Bailey said operatives and volunteers will sometimes use multiple aliases to create "an echo chamber."
Demeritt likened online commenting to the more time-honored practice of enlisting people to submit letters to the editor of print newspapers.
"Campaign supporters actually will draft up talking points and write letters for people to sign," Demeritt said. "It's a prevalent practice."
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