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In Political Campaigns, Even Reluctant Users Learn Twitter And Facebook Now Rule

Jefferson County Recorder of Deeds Debbie Dunnegan Waters
Jefferson County website

Jefferson County Recorder of Deeds Debbie Dunnegan Waters says she likely would have been oblivious tothe internet uproar over her Facebook comments about the president if she hadn’t set up a Twitter account a few months ago.

Waters claims that she had forgotten about her Facebook post – which appears to ask why the military hasn’t ousted President Barack Obama -- until she was at a radio station for an interview on Oct. 10.

As she checked her smartphone, “my email ‘notifications’ went berserk,’’ Waters said.  Then the press started calling.

That’s when she found out that she was attracting a national audience and that screenshots of her Facebook post were everywhere, especially on Twitter.  A few days later, Waters caught the attention of the progressive Huffington Post.

Waters’ experience is a perfect example of Politics 2014.

Social media – especially Twitter – is king. And if you are not on social media, you are missing lots of what is going on in a campaign.

Politicians’ controversial public comments, actions or votes can be outed in seconds.  And Facebook posts like Waters’ can be circulated to tens of thousands – make that millions – with just a few keystrokes by critics.

Posting Private Thoughts Carry Political Risks

Local Democratic activist Braxton Payne, who takes credit for first publicizing Waters’ disparaging Facebook observations about Obama, says the episode epitomizes the naivete of some public figures.

“Social media, in general, have opened new doors for politicians to say things that they normally would say behind closed doors,’’ Payne observed.

Waters says that her Facebook comments have been misinterpreted, although she also acknowledges that “maybe my choice of words was bad.”

Screenshot of Waters' controversial post.

By the way, Payne says he found out about Waters’ post secondhand. “I got the screenshot from a friend of a friend,’’ he recalled.  On the morning of Oct. 10, Payne fired off a few Tweets that swiftly set off a media frenzy.

Progress Missouri, a group aligned with progressive groups, has been probing the tweets and Facebook posts for months of various Republican candidates -- especially for the Missouri General Assembly.

The grouphas posted some of the candidates' disparaging or inappropriate posts on its website -- notably those of Republican state representative candidate Joe Corica of Maryland Heights.

After Progress Missouri went public, Corica took down many of his most volatile comments, some dealing with women and gays.  But the old posts live on. Progress Missouri obtained screen shots before Corica tried to wipe away his old comments.  Besides posting the controversial comments on its website, the group has circulated copies to the press.

Corica has yet to respond to requests for comments, although an ally has asserted on the web that Corica had been hacked.

Sean Nicholson, Progress Missouri’s executive director, says that it’s appropriate for his group to highlight candidates’ inappropriate social-media comments. “They are there for the whole world to see,’’ Nicholson said. “Voters certainly should know.”

Matt Wills, executive director for the Missouri Republican Party, says the party takes issue with Progress Missouri’s tactics – which Wills contends may violate its tax-exempt status. He accuses the Missouri Democratic Party of farming out its opposition research to such groups.

In any case, Wills says the state GOP has warned candidates “to be very careful with what they post and what they put out there.”

At the party’s campaign schools, he tells potential candidates: “Be cognizant of what you say in the past is going to come back and rear its head, and when you least expect it.”

Such warnings aside, Wills is a fan of social media’s potential. “It’s a great tool to just push your message,’’ he said, without being filtered by traditional news outlets.

Whipping up the base

In fact, some argue that  “gotcha’’ isn’t the prime attraction of social media in politics. Campaigns now assign aides to tweet regularly and post on Facebook or other sites such as Instagram and Pinterest.

In St. Louis County’s contest for county executive, both sides – or, rather, their surrogates – are taking social media very seriously.

Rick Stream
Credit Parth Shah | St. Louis Public Radio
Rick Stream

“It’s a wonderful way for the young people to get connected,’’ said Republican nominee Rick Stream. He observed that many young voters “don’t know what a newspaper is’’ and rarely watch TV news.

But campaigns can reach them on Twitter or Facebook. Stream says his staff does most of the social media posting, although sometimes he’ll send over suggestions.

“My only instruction is that ‘what you put out is something my wife would approve,’ ” Stream said.

But Stream's campaign also has used Twitter to pound at Democratic rival Steve Stenger.  Stream's staffer Mark Hafner, for example, has tweeted out complaints about debates he contends that Stenger has turned down.

And other Stream allies have regularly tweeted out critiques of Stenger's latest ads.

Twitter touted as 'equalizer'

St. Louis lawyer Jane Dueker, a supporter of Democrat Steve Stenger, has attracted attention for months for her prolific tweets – some of which take aim at Stream.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Jane Dueker

“The impact of social media has yet to be determined, but I think it is a great way to get your message out quickly,’’ Dueker said. “It’s a way for you to get to know other people.”

She adds that she enjoys sparring with critics on Twitter, as well as political allies.

But looking more broadly, Dueker sees social media as an avenue that feeds democracy.  “It’s a great equalizer,” she said, because anybody – regardless of wealth, race or background – has the same 140-character platform.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a high profile PR person or a grandmother from south county,’’ she said.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agrees that social media are changing the face of politics – for good and bad.

For the most part, he said, politicians reaching out on Twitter, Facebook and other social media “are addressing people who are engaged’’ in politics and public affairs already. And many of those people, he added, are “already disposed to one side or the other.”

Social media, Robertson said, are good at “stoking emotions more and getting information out more quickly.”

But on the downside, he added, “it feeds an electorate already polarized.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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