LEWISTON, Maine — In the battle to message voters, political campaigns and their supporters in Maine are increasingly turning to social media — including Twitter and Facebook — to promote candidates and causes. But, the ever-evolving and instant medium also presents pitfalls and problems that may cause more trouble than they are worth.

And, some experts say, the anti-social messaging may even be ruining the young political operatives responsible for the social media bloom.

In late July, the Maine Republican Party made a point of the “tweets” — the up to 140 character messages used on Twitter — of a 20-year-old campaign volunteer for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud. Some of the tweets sent by the volunteer — before he was brought on to volunteer on the campaign — included crude, sexist and vulgar messages.

In a press release sent July 26, Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, made hay of the tweets by expressing outrage that Michaud did not “fire” the offending volunteer.

“I think it speaks to the arrogance of the Michaud campaign which, like most Democratic politicians, think they can get away with anything after 40 years of near one-party rule in Maine,” Savage said in a prepared statement.

Michaud’s campaign did suspend the volunteer, and campaign manager Matt McTighe issued a statement denouncing the tweets and promising to offer increased training for volunteers to ensure they conduct themselves in an appropriate manner.

The dustup wasn’t the first between Republicans and Democrats over something posted on Twitter.

In October 2013, Democrats said two tweets by a reporter for The Maine Wire, a news website of the conservative-backed Maine Heritage Policy Center, went over the line.

And, Maine’s GOP Party Chairman Rick Bennett discounted the tweets as “trash talk.”

The pair of tweets, by reporter and editor Steve Robinson, suggested Brian Jordan, a videographer hired by the Democrats to follow and record Gov. Paul LePage’s public appearances, may be prohibited from going into public schools in Maine.

“I hear @ChairmanGrant’s creepy tracker guy is also tailing Eliot Cutler now,” Robinson posted on Twitter, along with a photo of Jordan.

ChairmanGrant is Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant’s Twitter account name and using an @ sign before an account name means the tweet would have been presented directly to Grant, as well as anyone else who follows Robinson on Twitter, or who subscribes to the “#mepolitics” hashtag.

Later the same day, Robinson, or someone apparently using his Twitter account, targeted Jordan again, this time using a different photograph of the videographer.

“Good way to avoid @ChairmanGrant’s tracker? Go to a school. I hear he’s not allowed within 1,000’,” the tweet read.

Grant declined to go into details at the time but said the party would consider all its options. Both Robinson and his employer also declined comment when the Bangor Daily News asked about the message.

But the GOP’s Bennett told the newspaper that he and Grant had discussed social media and the use of it in campaigns, and he distanced himself and the Maine GOP from Robinson’s tweets.

“I don’t think those kinds of comments are appropriate,” Bennett said. “I think [Robinson] was doing a bit of trash talking. … I think in general, we need to elevate the level of discourse in politics.”

Then, in February 2014, Bennett found himself apologizing for a Facebook post made by a Republican intern attacking Sandra Fluke, a Democratic congressional candidate from California and a former Georgetown University law student.

Fluke gained national attention for her advocacy to include contraception among the health services covered under the Affordable Care Act. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was widely castigated for calling Fluke “a slut” on air.

And a Maine GOP Facebook post, which has since been removed, criticized Fluke for being too poor to afford birth control but having enough money to pay the filing fee to run for Congress. One GOP supporter commented on the post, labeling Fluke a “whore.”

“As Chairman of the Maine Republican Party, I apologize for this offensive material and assure you that it was not sanctioned by me or the leadership of the Maine Republican Party,” Bennett said in a prepared statement posted on the Maine GOP’s website. “We took swift action to correct the situation as soon as we became aware of it. The administrative privileges of the individual who created this offensive post have been removed, and we have tightened controls on the posting of material on our Facebook page.”

Sparring and sniggering

But since February, there really hasn’t been any kind of social media ceasefire between the operatives as both Republicans and Democrats have taken to Twitter and Facebook to promote — and demote — candidates.

One recent Facebook post by David Sorensen, the spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, featured a smiling Sorensen standing with his arm around Michaud at what appears to be a campaign event. Sorensen captioned the photo, “He had no idea” and then shared it on his Facebook page.

Sorensen said he meant for the post to be a “moment of levity.” He said it wasn’t meant to poke fun at Michaud for not knowing who Sorensen was.

“I saw some humor in the fact that here I am doing research for the opposition party and you know, if he only knew what I did for my day job,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen earlier this month shared by email a photo of Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat, posted on his Facebook page.

Gerzofsky, who is seeking re-election, is holding a blue and white,”Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be” sign and sitting in a boat. But in his message, Sorensen suggests Gerzofsky is confessing to stealing the sign from the highway. As it turns out, the sign is a scaled-down replica of the signs that greet motorists at most of the state’s highway border crossings — and was not stolen.

Also on Facebook in July, Maine Democratic Party operative Chuck Quintero, who has served as the chief of staff to Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, posted a photo of LePage during a press event the governor held on a new safety campaign against distracted driving.

Quintero, who has done “advance work” for politicians and candidates in the past in Maine and New Jersey, noted LePage’s staff and handlers failed to notice the word “wreck” in red would be prominent in the background behind the governor as he stood at a podium speaking.

The word is part of a new message painted on trucks meant to warn against the danger of distracted driving. The full message reads: “One text or call could WRECK it all.”

A photo that appeared on MPBN’s news website shows LePage standing at the podium, along with a lineup of Maine Department of Transportation officials and Maine State Police in front of a truck, including the full message of the safety campaign. But, the image shared by Quintero was cropped so that just LePage standing at the podium in front of the word “WRECK” appears.

“Eeek. Some staffer is in big trouble for letting the Governor stand right in front of a sign with big red letters saying WRECK at his own event,” Quintero’s wife, Jodi Quintero, who also works as the spokesperson for the Democratic Speaker of the House, said in a comment on Facebook with the original photo.

In response, Chuck Quintero suggested LePage’s staff staged him in front of the photo on purpose, posting “I think they are probably fed up as the rest of us and this is their way of sticking it to him.”

On Twitter, Chuck Quintero shared the photo again, this time cropped to include only LePage and the word “WRECK” in the background. His tweet read: “Political Advance 101: Don’t put your guy in front of a giant sign that says Wreck.”

Others shared the photo on their Facebook pages or on Twitter, some suggesting they wouldn’t be surprised to see the image pop up in a television ad attacking LePage later this fall.

But some political consultants seriously question if the focus on social media is ruining what would otherwise be good campaign operatives.

Social or anti-social?

“Social media has become the hot commodity for campaigns and, like the snake oil salesman of the past, people are saying it will cure every political ill,” Mark Harris, a co-founder and partner of Cold Spark Media said in a recent column published by Campaigns & Elections. “But in the rush to rightfully develop a strong social media presence, too many young campaign operatives have lost sight of what actually moves persuadable voters.”

Harris goes on to point out that the most dependable voters, usually older and not always dissuaded or distracted by social media, are seldom influenced by a Facebook post, let alone a tweet.

“Many voters, especially older voters who are your most reliable voting demographic, don’t use it. Some have no idea what Twitter is,” Harris said.

In Maine, Sorensen said most political operatives focus on Facebook rather than Twitter because they believe they are reaching a bigger audience of potential voters that way. He said the efforts on Twitter are mainly aimed at the media and other political operatives.

“We don’t think we are moving voters, we think we are moving the press,” Sorensen said about campaign use of Twitter.

But older voters, in rural and less connected regions of the state could care less about Facebook, said Richard Begin, 65, a political volunteer in Bethel who usually gives his time to Republican candidates.

“I don’t use it,” Begin said of Facebook. “And I don’t know many people who think it matters much. People who are really going to go out and vote in Maine see no value in it.”

And increasingly the tone and content of tweets, especially from those shielding their identities by setting up accounts under aliases or names meant to parody real people, is negative and insulting.

Some of those using social media anonymously, especially on Twitter, have defended their right to anonymous free speech and liken themselves to the anonymous writers of historical documents — including the Federalist Papers linked to the American Revolution.

Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine and frequent left-leaning blogger for the Bangor Daily News, said that assumption is a huge stretch of what’s really going on. Fried has found herself the subject of anonymous hate speech on Twitter and has consistently refuted those who attack her with sexist and racist insults.

“Today’s Twitter sock puppets are a far cry from the thoughtful anonymous writers during the American founding,” Fried said in an email message to the Sun Journal. “Not giving their names gives them a perch from which to lob uncivil comments, to present themselves as multiple individuals, and to avoid accountability for themselves and the parties and candidates for whom they may speak.”

While there is no easy way to calculate whether conservatives or liberals employ more “sock puppet” accounts, several — including Fried — said they believe the anonymous and negative attacks are largely being made by conservatives.

“Although their ideologies vary, most surreptitious tweeters commenting on Maine politics tend to tout Republican viewpoints,” Fried said.

Beyond the dueling press releases from the party operatives and the outrage expressed by some of those anonymous accounts on social media, only one daily newspaper — the Portland Press Herald — covered the vulgar missives of Michaud’s unpaid campaign volunteer back in July, and that coverage was in an online blog post only.

A handful of radio outlets, including MPBN, also reported on the volunteer’s tweets and campaign reactions to them, or discussed them as part of talk show banter.

Overall, the Maine media largely ignored the demands by Republican operatives that the tweets were a scandal in the making or indicative of how Michaud would operate as governor.

That underwhelming reaction by the Maine press was probably appropriate, according to Mark Brewer, another political science professor at the University of Maine.

Brewer said it was highly questionable how much control any campaign has over, or should expect to have over, the social media accounts of unpaid volunteers.

“There are more outlets for people to express themselves, therefore there is more opportunity for other people to see how they are expressing themselves,” Brewer said. “You can never completely control that.”

Brewer said campaigns would be wise to institute stringent social media policies, including some types of “pre-screening” or “pre-clearance” rules for all people affiliated with a campaign, as a way of managing the risk of a rogue operator sending out a scandalous tweet or Facebook post.

In the case of the Michaud volunteer, a more vigorous vetting process would have discovered the offensive tweets that had already been sent and may have allowed the campaign to not sign the volunteer on in the first place, Brewer said.

Overall, the incident was more like a bottle rocket that goes up but doesn’t explode, instead fizzling off into the darkness.

“This was really a nonplayer in the campaign,” Brewer said. “I think [any impact on the campaign] is probably already gone, but that being said, it is something to watch for.”

Brewer predicts in the coming election cycle some campaign, maybe not in Maine, but some big campaign someplace is going to fall victim to an inappropriate social media posting.

“Somebody from some campaign will say something really offensive on social media, and they will pay a price for it,” Brewer said.

Social media is growing in importance for younger voters, and it has become the primary way they consume information, political or otherwise, Brewer said.

“We can safely say that social media does matter and that it matters far beyond the kind of political class or the chattering class,” Brewer said. “It matters far beyond just that group and those people who are intense consumers of political information.”

He also said that, as a tool for campaigns to reach the youngest voters, it is unsurpassed.

“You can use social media to communicate with volunteers and to mobilize support within the electorate,” Brewer said. The first big-name candidate to do it was in 2008 when President Barack Obama’s campaign mobilized large numbers of young voters.

“If you want to get with young people, people under 30, social media is the best tool that a campaign has to do that,” Brewer said.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.