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Calendar Turns To August; Local Elections Heat Up — Especially Online

15th Ward Councilman Frank Commisso Jr.
Albany Mayoral candidate Frank Commisso, Jr. Screenshot from his Facebook LIVE town hall (July 31, 2017)

Some say President Donald Trump's fascination with twitter has led to social media rising as a factor in politics. And that may have trickled down to local races. The Capital Region is no exception.

With the president something of a one-man news outlet, whose tweets have often led the evening news, New York's Capital Region is fast becoming a microcosm of social media-based political staging and stumping, as candidates explore new ways to connect with citizens. Albany Common Councilman Judd Krasher, who sees social media as an ascending force in local politics, represents the 11th ward.   "We have this now, virtual town hall, where people can engage in a dialogue about their feelings about a whole host of different topics that they feel very passionate about, and then engage in a discussion with others who may disagree and hopefully become more informed, more enlightened as far as different points of view regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum.”

Albany mayoral candidate Frank Commisso Jr., also of the Common Council, appeared in his third Facebook Live townhall Monday night, fielding comments submitted by viewers.  "We're using this medium to take questions on, from folks here that have questions about the city of Albany. We find this to be a better way to communicate with voters in real time, and answer those questions to the best of our ability."

The Times Union, which reported on the use of social media in the mayoral race this week, posted amounts the three leading Albany Democratic mayoral candidates paid to Facebook for boosting and promoting posts:  Incumbent Mayor Kathy Sheehan: $8,297 - Frank Commisso: $4,678 – Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin: $0.

Jack Collens is an assistant professor of political science at Siena College. He says there's little evidence that social media is driving voters to be more connected to their government.   "However there is some preliminary evidence at least, that, especially in the U.K. and the U.S. that a lot of local efforts to reach their citizens through social media has turned some citizens at least away from viewing local government solely as a provider of services and instead more as a body of representatives, to represent the interests of the people, so social media can certainly serve that purpose as well and we're seeing that locally as well here in Albany."

Krasher emphasizes that social media can be unforgiving: words that can be misunderstood can also be "spun" by others, which has given the phrase "taken out of context" a whole new perspective.  "Certain elements of social media can get awfully nasty. Very quickly. The commander-in-chief of twitter, Donald Trump, is probably the most egregious offender of this and has really lowered the bar in a significant way when it comes to civil discourse."

Just Tuesday morning, the president insisted he won’t stop using Twitter, claiming “Fake News” and “Trump enemies” want him to stop. Locally, Krasher found himself on the receiving end of a perceived slight by a member of the Albany County Democratic Committee.  Commisso brought the matter up during his Facebook Live chat, quoting from screenshots of later-deleted posts to illustrate his point.   "His family sent him to therapy, which is conversion therapy being discussed here, to 'fix him,' in quotes. Now, that's highly offensive, highly inappropriate, certainly in the Democratic Party, we think we've come much further than that by 2017."

Meantime, an alleged incident at a Schenectady block party involving two prominent political figures found its way to Facebook, where disagreement rapidly escalated. Krasher says lack of civility seems to come with the territory.  "My rule of thumb is that I will not say anything on social media in commentary about an individual or an issue that I wouldn't say to someone in person and I wouldn't be comfortable discussing in a room full of people."

But that about the effect on elections? Collens says that's uncharted territory.    "Efforts by candidates to reach voters and get them to show up and vote, those mobilization efforts, are still more successful when they're done in person or over the phone than through things like Facebook or Twitter. But those outreaches through social media can be helpful especially among younger voters.'"

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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