Local politicians and moms plant comments on news stories - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Local politicians and moms plant comments on news stories

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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - State Rep. Jesse Young and his supporters knew the story was about to come out.
    
So before the local newspaper could post an article about the Republican Gig Harbor lawmaker allegedly screaming at staff members, his mom went on the offensive, according to The News Tribune.
    
The night before The News Tribune's story was scheduled to appear online, Young's mother, Maureen Flanagan, sent an email urging Young's supporters to flood the online comments section at the end of the article.
    
In part, she encouraged supporters to bash the "liberal media," as well as criticize the reporter's use of anonymous sources and question whether the story was "hack journalism."
    
"Research is showing that more & more people are paying attention to the comments posted at the end of an article than to the article itself," she wrote. "It is our hope that positive comments from people in the district will outweigh any negative impact from the article itself."
    
It turns out, organizing online comment campaigns is a common political strategy - both nationally and in Washington state. And researchers say the practice can be effective at swaying voters.
    
A study by researchers at the University of Delaware found that voters are far more influenced by what others say about politicians on Facebook than what the candidates say about themselves.
    
The lead author of that study, Paul Brewer, said he thinks a similar effect can play out in the comment sections at the end of news stories: People will most likely put more stock in the readers' comments than what a candidate says in the article.
    
"I don't think it's necessarily the case that more people read the comments, but they might be more influenced by the comments," said Brewer, a professor and the research director at the university's Center for Political Communication.
    
"The basic idea is we trust information more if it comes from a third party," he said. "If I am a candidate and I say something great about myself, people are going to discount that, because it's in my best interest."
    
"You might think a thoughtful reader or viewer might say, 'Well wait, where is this third party coming from, what is their point of view?'" Brewer said. "But we're often not thinking about that."
    
Leslie Stebbins, author of "Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth," said the internet is flooded with fake comments on restaurants, hotels and products - and people often believe them.
    
Stebbins said that level of blind faith likely extends to online comments on news articles as well.
    
"There is a lot of research about the fact that most people tend much more to believe what they think are comments coming from everyday, average people," Stebbins said. "They trust that much more than experts, and we see that across the board with restaurant reviews and hotel reviews and so on."
    
Comments that disagree with a news story also can color certain people's perception of the news media, Stebbins said. She cited a recent study that found that user comments can make readers perceive an article as biased.
    
Additionally, repeated comments saying the same thing can persuade people that whatever they are saying is true - a phenomenon known as "proof by repeated assertion," she said.
    
"If you have dozens of people saying, 'This reporter is crazy,' I think that would sway people," Stebbins said.
    
Young, the Gig Harbor lawmaker, said he was aware his mom was sending out an email to urge supporters to leave comments on the recent article about him, though he said he didn't review the email in advance.
    
Young said during campaign seasons, he often asks his supporters to leave comments on news articles and social media - partly because he's confident his opponents are doing the same thing.
    
"Everybody is aware of the need to potentially do that," Young said last week. "Am I supposed to let only their story be told?"
    
He said what he and his mom did is a far cry from what companies do to "juice" their products' reviews on Amazon or other sites - mainly, because none of the supporters he's asking to add comments to a news story or Facebook post are paid.
    
Beyond urging Young's supporters to attack the media in her email, Young's mother also suggested people comment about the construction money Young has helped secure for his district and his work to freeze Tacoma Narrows bridge tolls.
    
Flanagan, Young's mom, didn't return a reporter's call for comment last week.
    
It's not the first time a local politician has tried to rally supporters to leave comments on a negative article. In 2011, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, a Democrat, asked a subordinate to try to drum up comments on a News Tribune article about a settlement with a sheriff's detective who accused Lindquist of workplace retaliation.
    
"Tell allies to comment on TNT story," Lindquist wrote in a text message.
    
On the national stage, a super PAC coordinating with Hillary Clinton's campaign spent at least $1 million last year to confront social media users posting negative things about the Democratic candidate online, the Los Angeles Times reported.
    
Russian operatives also appear to have employed "trolls" - computer operatives who pretended to be supporters of Republican Donald Trump - to post online stories and comments last year praising Trump and disparaging Clinton, sources told McClatchy's Washington bureau.
    
Locally, when it comes to urging supporters to leave comments on political news articles, "It's true everybody does it," said Keith Schipper, a Republican campaign consultant in Washington state.
    
"Sometimes you get on there and see the comments are not going your way, so you say to someone, 'Hey, it might be good to leave a comment,'" he said.
    
Schipper said two years ago he looked for volunteers to add their comments to news stories about one of his candidates, state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, whose Catholic faith had become the subject of anonymous online attacks.
    
"We said, 'Hey, I know you guys are frustrated about this - it'd be good to voice your concerns on this article,'" Schipper said.
    
Still, organizing online comments is only a small part of any campaign, Schipper said.
    
"I wouldn't say it's a big component," he said.
    
Another political consultant, Ben Anderstone, questioned the effectiveness of soliciting online comments, though he acknowledged it happens regularly.
    
"Campaigns often do it on the small scale at a minimum, especially in partisan races where there are these kind of built-in tribal groups that are already warring with each other," said Anderstone, who works with Democratic candidates.
    
Anderstone said he still thinks talking to voters on their doorsteps and having supporters write more traditional letters to the editor are better ways to reach voters.
    
"I'm not sure many people go to the online comments section to make up their minds as voters," Anderstone said.
    
He paused.
    
"I may be a little bit old fashioned."
    
___
    
Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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