Among the many innovations that social media tools have brought to the world of campaign politics are new ways to conduct opposition research.
Like any employer, political candidates have a vested, if indirect, interest in how staff members express themselves on personal social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
But in the hypersensitive and competitive world of campaigning, the question is especially sharply felt: How many degrees of separation are there from a legitimate campaign issue and a campaign staffer’s personal views posted on their personal social media page?
That question arose last week after the National Republican Congressional Committee circulated a press release attacking Tennessee Democratic House candidate Roy Herron for observations that appeared on the Twitter page of his senior adviser.
Among the “ultra-liberal” views that the NRCC hit veteran Tennessee Democratic operative Carol Andrews for was a tweet supporting gun control legislation and another that appeared to endorse the end-of-life provision that caused so much controversy in the early months of the health care debate.
When contacted about the press release, Andrews dismissed it as not being newsworthy. She also pointed out that, although she included a link to the official campaign Web site on her Twitter page, the campaign maintains a separate official Twitter account.
“I was not employed in this state or [by] anyone in it when I made those personal observations on my personal page,” she wrote in an e-mail just hours before taking down the Twitter page in question. “If you have a real question for this campaign, please pose it.”
Andrews certainly has sympathizers among those who consult in the realm of social media and politics.
“It doesn’t seem to me that a staffer’s personal views expressed in another forum are relevant,” said Brent Blackaby, a partner at Trilogy Interactive, which helps set up and manage social media pages for Democratic campaigns.
However, “once you’re on staff on a campaign you have to assume anything you say or write or publish or tweet or post on Facebook can come back to the campaign,” he said. “Whether it’s fair or not, people will be looking for opportunities … to embarrass a candidate. You just have to be cognisant and careful.”
As it has been since the dawn of the professional campaign team, senior staffers and communications directors have the most to worry about in the world of social media, as it can be easy to blur the lines between when those staffers are speaking for the candidate and when they are expressing their personal views.
In January, California Senate candidate Chuck DeVore was lambasted on some liberal Web sites for being insensitive to the disaster in Haiti after his spokesman, Josh Treviño, posted a tweet in the wake of the massive earthquake that said “the best thing the int’l community can do is tend the wounded, bury the dead, and then LEAVE. That includes all UN and charity.”
Treviño later explained that he was not speaking for the campaign when he posted the item, but DeVore still had to walk back his spokesman’s Twitter post.
“It was very foolish to make that argument after a devastating earthquake that’s killed tens of thousands of people,” DeVore told the Mercury News.
In December, Christopher Hightower, the spokesman for Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (R), resigned after liberal blogs posted allegations that he had racist remarks and pictures on his MySpace Web page.
Paul’s primary opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, jumped on the controversy, saying the incident should call into question Paul’s judgement as a candidate.
“There’s no question we’re going to have more examples of this going forward,” Blackaby said.
David All, a GOP new media consultant and founder of the Capitol Hill Tweet Watch Report, agreed.
“Lets be honest, the next macaca’ moment is going to happen on Twitter,” All said. “Every side is now engaging in modern opposition research and has always looked under every stone possible. I think now there are just more stones to look under.”
All said the best way to prepare for those attacks is for campaigns to have a clear and consistent social media policy for every staffer and volunteer.
“It doesn’t mean people need to get off [their personal social media pages] … but the group as a whole needs to sit down and talk about what’s appropriate and come up with some guidelines,” All said. “That way if it does become an issue … the campaign can say that’s outside our community policy.”
As for the incident last week in Tennessee, All said that by shutting down her personal Twitter page, Andrews ended up ceding ground to the NRCC over a simple press release.
“The absolute worst approach would be for someone to take themselves out of the conversation … and delete their account when it’s a perfectly good vehicle, and it’s perfectly appropriate for a campaign manager to engage in those spaces and to be talking to reporters and be talking to volunteers directly through Twitter,” he said.