The Internet has become a new public meeting place for political campaigns, as supporters and opponents line up to post comments - often anonymously - after news stories about candidates.
Are these comments spontaneous and genuine?
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That's hard to answer, but one suburban campaign for Congress recently instructed volunteers to add comments to the talk-back section of a story about their candidate, the Daily Herald has learned. The campaign even offered specific quotes for the volunteers to post.
The revelation came after Kelly Klopp, the spokesman for 10th District congressional hopeful Robert Dold, accidentally sent an e-mail to a Daily Herald reporter Wednesday with instructions to "please get some positive comments up" in the comments section attached to a story about a Dold television commercial.
In the e-mail, Klopp suggested possible messages for the volunteers to post, including "Heard the ad and liked it" and "Nice to see the candidate talk about himself without just attacking his opponent."
Dold, a Republican from Kenilworth, is running against Wilmette Democrat Dan Seals for the post.
In an interview, Klopp acknowledged she sent the e-mail and defended the practice.
"Volunteers write letters to the editors for us, put up yard signs, hand out literature - we're always encouraging supporters and volunteers to join the public debate," she said.
Such volunteers also are asked to post comments on blogs and Facebook pages, Klopp said.
"Our supporters are supporting us because they want to tell people they should like Bob and vote for him, and we encourage them to communicate that in any way they can," Klopp said.
The Seals team doesn't employ such a tactic, spokeswoman Aviva Gibbs said. Seals' supporters are active enough on the Internet without prompting from the campaign, she said.
"We don't encourage supporters to stack the deck (in comment sections) because we don't have to," Gibbs said. "They do it on their own."
The online maneuver shouldn't surprise political observers, said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Politicians already are using the Internet in various ways to spread their message, and comment sections are just one more digital forum, he said.
"Campaigns are going to try to put their thumb on the scale one way or another when they have the opportunity to shape public opinion," Redfield said. "They know people read the comments - and they know reporters read the comments."
The Dold campaign uses college-age volunteers to post comments on the Web about the candidate, Klopp said. The team she intended to activate Wednesday is based at DePaul University, she said.
Having volunteer interns post comments on websites is a way to promote Dold's candidacy without paying for advertising, Klopp said. The volunteers specifically are instructed to write positive messages about Dold rather than posts bashing Seals, she said.
Candidates like using reader-comment sections to campaign because the areas generally have unlimited space and typically aren't edited, checked for factual accuracy or filtered, unlike editorial pages in newspapers that feature letters to editors, Redfield said,
"The opportunities are greater there to manipulate public opinion," he said.
But there's a down side, too, Redfield said. These maneuvers make it harder for "an increasingly cynical public" to sort out the news from the noise, he said.
And some campaigns don't think it's necessary.
"We have plenty of volunteers who would go to comment sections on their own," said Brandon Pinette, the campaign manager for 14th District U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Batavia Democrat.
Brian Colgan, who's heading Republican U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert's re-election campaign in the 13th District, said the tactic didn't surprise him. Biggert does not have such an organized network, Colgan said, but he's suspected similarly worded or themed comments from multiple posters on news websites were planted by political opponents.
Online community forums such as the reader-comment sections at dailyherald.com connect people and open public discourse, Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen said. Deliberately stacking comment sections with anonymous posts from campaign volunteers abuses that system, he said.
"It is a shame that politics can be so consciously dishonest," Lampinen said.
Dishonest or not, Redfield expects such tactics will become more prevalent.
"Campaigns are going to try to use whatever opportunities are possible to get their message out, positive or negative," he said.