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Campaigns Contend With Vitriol on Social Media

As the campaigns for gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis use social media to expand the discourse on the issues they consider priorities, they must also deal with addressing issues like name calling and personal attacks in such forums.

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The Texas gubernatorial candidates’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are prime opportunities for the hopefuls to take their messages directly to supporters and other interested parties, allowing them to showcase their latest announcements and provide forums for comments and feedback.

But as the campaigns for Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis look to expand the discourse on the issues they consider priorities, they must also contend with the negativity in those forums, including name calling and personal attacks. Commenters have directed such attacks against Davis and Abbott on their respective Facebook pages and elsewhere. At one point, the Abbott campaign alerted the Texas Department of Public Safety about one Facebook comment that appeared to threaten Davis’ life.

The campaigns and observers say it’s important to take note of the fine line of wanting to engage the electorate while monitoring and potentially censoring input.

Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief campaign strategist, said it is indeed a tricky job to handle controversial remarks on social media, where commenters are often anonymous.

“Things that people say [online], they would never say in person to people,” Carney said. “So it’s an enabling tool." 

This year, a Facebook user commented on Abbott’s page saying that if Davis won in November, a “.50 caliber headache was waiting for her.”

Carney said the Abbott campaign removed the comment from the page after alerting DPS to the post.

People wanting to comment on Abbott’s online forum, Townhall 254, must adhere to strict guidelines when posting to the page, Carney said. Comments must be civil and about the issue. Comments that do not follow the rules are taken down, he said, adding that it rarely happens because the policy is so detailed.

Campaigns largely lose that control in other social media realms, Carney said, “because you get criticized for editing, and stifling people’s opinions just makes it worse.”

The hateful rhetoric has also been directed at Abbott and Republicans, with a commenter on Abbott's Facebook page saying, "When Republicans die, God smiles."

Rebecca Acuña, a Davis campaign spokeswoman, said in an email that the campaign would not discuss its social media policy or how it handles menacing comments posted on pages, citing security reasons. Acuña did say that any potential threats are reported to DPS.

Regina Lawrence, the director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin, said the campaigns appear to be learning as they go.

“They might be one step ahead of the rest of us because they have to figure this out," said Lawrence, who is also a faculty member in UT-Austin’s Department of Journalism.

It's an issue not confined to campaign forums. News organizations have the same problem with personal attacks in comments. The Texas Tribune, for example, grapples with it daily, monitoring online comments and deleting those that violate its policy

With more than seven months until the general election, and plenty of campaign trail still to cover, Lawrence said the online vitriol could grow worse. While she said there is no all-encompassing solution, regular monitoring is key.

“It may be a case where we have to take at least a little bit of the bad with the good. And I think campaigns are trying to figure this out as they’re working,” Lawrence said.

Jay Root contributed to this report.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the Annette Straus Institute for Civic Life and the University of Texas at Austin were corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)

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Politics Department of Public Safety Greg Abbott Wendy Davis