Anti-social media adds new dimensions to ‘silly season’

Although I’m constantly and consistently impressed by the honor, sincerity and capability of candidates for local office, I’m just as often disappointed to see what candidates or people who support them are willing to stoop to in order to win an election. This was true enough in the era before social media — a form of communication that often might better be described as anti-social. Now, applications like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and others have added new layers of potential for meanness and, even worse, deception. I caution you to beware letting them influence your election decisions.

Justifiably, the notion of foreign disinformation and misrepresentation via Facebook in an effort to sway campaigns gets a lot of attention. But the misuse of Facebook to influence voters is hardly the sole province of national elections. Partisans interested in local races also are only too happy to spread unverified innuendo, to hide or misstate their identities in comments, to post or pass along modified photographs and much more. In one Facebook situation we dealt with last week, supporters of candidates running as a slate in a local race edited the text of one of our endorsements to create emphasis we did not intend regarding slate members we did not endorse and burnish our comments on a member we did endorse. When we complained, the parties pled naiveté and took down the offending post, but I still have trouble chalking it up to innocent intention when someone modifies our words to make it look like we said something we didn’t say.

I’ve noted before that our editors writing endorsements are sometimes loath to say positive things we may feel about candidates we don’t endorse for fear that someone will slap a Daily Herald logo on a campaign ad and use the quote out of context to make it appear we endorsed the candidate. The potential for similar ruses is boundless on social media, where dispensing falsehoods as truth, hiding or misstating sources of information, making claims out of context and deliberately ignoring facts that contradict a statement are routine behaviors.

So, while Russian meddling is getting all the press these days, keep in mind that political misdeeds online are not limited to the work of highly sophisticated computer spies attempting to change the course of nations. They also come from sources you’d least expect – your friends, neighbors and groupmates sometimes too eager to change the course of your community.

In short: Know your information sources. Trust, but verify. It’s not called the “silly season” for nothing.