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It usually starts with a comment like, “… eat shit you lousy, scum sucking, fuckhead,” which leads to a trail of replies where strangers call each other racists, traitors, and worse. Replying to Facebook comments is a digital minefield. Yet with more and more first-time candidates launching campaigns this cycle, it’s all too common to see pols entering the fray.
In its ideal form, candidates humanize themselves, build trust, and help followers feel personally connected when they respond to Facebook comments. This is the ultimate goal of digital: we aim to create ways for people who might never meet their candidates to feel connected and invested enough to contribute, vote, or volunteer.
But the relative anonymity of Facebook creates a space where people feel comfortable calling candidates names and who needs that? Is it worth digging through the dark, underbelly of Facebook comments to find those few people who will feel a connection, and even fewer people who will vote based on a feeling they get from a Facebook comment?
When candidates ask me about Facebook comments, I lay out the following recommendations:
Assign a staffer to triage the comments.
A candidate’s time is not best spent sifting through Facebook comments. But a trustworthy staffer, with an understanding of the candidate’s voice and priorities, can easily be assigned to track comments, respond to some, and to highlight other comments for the candidate to answer directly.
Answer the easy questions.
Respond to the gimmes. “Where is your campaign office?” “Where can I get more information about your campaign?” “Do you have an exit plan for the zombie apocalypse?” Score extra points by being available and communicative without delving into the deep, dark stuff.
If it’s clear no good will come from sending one or two replies, then don’t bother.
If responding will clearly elicit more comments from the initial commenter and others, then it’s not worth responding in the first place. When a candidate comments and the conversation continues, he or she is off the phone and walking into the next event as other commenters steer the conversation however they choose. The candidate is considered complicit here because, at some point, he or she replied.
In the grey area between really good comments and really bad ones, stick to your brand.
Are you running to be the Chris Christie of your congressional district? Respond to the assholes. Be an asshole. Live your truth. If you’re the young, tech-forward candidate trying to change how we communicate with our elected officials, you need to put effort into responding, and responding to the right comments. If you’re bringing compassion back to politics, engage with the comments as nice as you are and respond to the nasty comments with the kindest tone you can possibly muster.
There will always be terrible comments.
If no one is posting garbage comments, is it even Facebook? It’s impossible to run for office without pissing a few people off—candidates cannot make everyone happy. If candidate Facebook pages are all puppies and rainbows, are they taking a strong enough stance on the issues?
Hide or report the really dangerous comments.
Death threats, inappropriate language, and explicit pictures have no place on a candidate’s Facebook page. Take and archive screenshots in case you need to file a police report.
Hide, but don’t delete.
For the worst comments that no one else should see, hide rather than delete. Commenters still see their posts, and think they’re still voicing their opinions, but no one else can see or engage with them. No point in pissing angry followers off even more by deleting their comments.
Candidates should delegate the authority to hide comments.
Running for office is deeply personal and so many Facebook comments are written to be hurtful or violating. It’s reasonable that candidates want to hide these comments, but Facebook is still meant to be an open space where people can share their “opinions,” no matter how ridiculous or perverse they are. It’s what we all signed up for when we joined Facebook. Senior staffers are often a better judge of what should be hidden. If a comment makes senior staffers or advisors feel uncomfortable, that’s reason enough to hide or even report it.
Most importantly, candidates need to define themselves decisively before others have a chance to do it for them. When it comes to engaging with Facebook comments, candidates need to support their brand, messaging, and should only go so far as to define themselves. Beyond that, they’re wandering into a minefield of bombs that are just waiting to explode.
Emily Gittleman is the digital director at 50+1 Strategies, a political advocacy/campaign consulting firm based in Oakland, Calif.