ALBANY – It started with a perceived slight against progressive women in Albany over party lines, but devolved into what city Councilman Judd Krasher saw as a personal attack against him as a gay man.
And it all transpired over Facebook.
When Krasher submitted opportunities to ballot against five female council candidates who were endorsed by the Working Families Party, Albany County Democratic Committee secretary Maureen O’Brien took to Facebook, criticizing Krasher for doing so and bringing up his sexual orientation. Comments later devolved into O’Brien making personal attacks against Krasher.
O’Brien later took down the posts, but the damage was already done. It was saved in a screenshot and shared on various political insiders’ pages days later. She has since posted a status further explaining her comments, and apologizing for her rashness.
“Social media is immediate. You can go back and, in an instant, bring up what was said,” said Wendy Johnston, assistant professor of political science at SUNY Adirondack. “It may not be the candidate themselves. It may be fellow supporters or campaign staffers who engage the people trolling. It can have a negative impact on the candidate.”
One has to look no further than the 2016 Presidential election to know the impact social media now has on politics and the new way candidates, and their supporters, spread their message to the masses.
By the numbers
Payments to social media site Facebook for boosting and promoting posts:
Frank Commisso Jr.: $4,678
Kathy Sheehan: $8,297
Carolyn McLaughlin: $0
Source: New York State Board of Elections campaign finance July 2017 periodic reports
Such is the case with local politics as well, where candidates who oppose each other are reaching more voters than ever − but are often also subjecting themselves to attacks that can be nasty and personal.
The current contested races in the City of Albany have been a microcosm of this new world where even opinions shared by those considered allies can complicate things in the real world.
Sheehan’s campaign manager Steve Napier said he reached out to O’Brien after the post was shared.
“I asked that she not engage in personal attacks because it reflects poorly on everyone she surrounds herself with, even though she’s not an official part of our campaign,” Napier said.
While O’Brien isn’t part of Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s reelection campaign, primary mayoral challenger Councilman Frank Commisso Jr. picked up the ball on the controversy, saying the incident of how those around Sheehan are “very nasty people” and called for O’Brien’s resignation.
Commisso’s campaign also has had to deal with addressing offensive or insensitive comments. Some have been deleted because of inappropriate language or insensitive comments, but they’ve maintained “a rather loose platform,” Commisso said.
Social media allows for a fast, efficient and inexpensive means of communications and allows elected officials to connect with constituents on a more personal level, Johnston said.
“You can showcase your inner actions in person with your community,” she said. “It can help provide that personalization and humanization of that candidate.”
Napier said Sheehan’s campaign has used social media to do just that.
“There is no way Kathy can see every single person every single day, so we show people on social media what we’re doing,” he said. “She can reach a wide group of people and tell them, ‘I’m out at this event.’”
In an era where U.S. President Donald Trump announces major policy changes via Twitter, local candidates also use social media to discuss issues and their platforms.
“When we put out videos of policy matters, we’ve received a tremendous response,” said Commisso, who recently hosted a Facebook Live event where followers could ask questions. “You try to provide the best evidence possible. With video or photo evidence you can be more persuasive. Written language can be manipulated.”
Yet, experts say social should not be the only mode used to connect with voters. While African Americans, Latinos and women are more likely to use social media, they’re using it for entertainment, not to gather political information, said Ron Seyb, associate professor of political science at Skidmore College. Older, white, conservative men are more likely to use social for political data, he said.
Council President Carolyn McLaughlin said her mayoral campaign has been using social media to alert people of events and issues that matter, but recognized the limitation of the digital world.
“It doesn’t take the place of knocking on doors,” she said. “They want to touch and feel a candidate. They want to see what you’re like in a person, you can’t discredit that, you have to use it all.”
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