I was surprised to see how quickly and mean-spiritedly some readers responded to Chad Blair’s Civil Beat article about U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard ‘s decision to miss a Senate hearing on veterans’ issues because she was running late at a surfing interview with a Yahoo reporter at Waikiki Beach.

I was up very early the morning Blair’s story appeared. The moon was shining and the birds were still asleep but there was already a long list of nasty comments about the online story.

The comments seemed to have appeared almost instantly.

Most of the commenters chose not to address Blair’s content but rather to attack him personally, or to slam Civil Beat for allegedly making it seem like Gabbard didn’t care about veterans or that it was “smearing” Gabbard or “lying.”

That’s ridiculous. Blair’s story was factual. Gabbard’s office has yet to complain about the accuracy of the story or to ask for corrections.

Internet troll illustration

iStock

Civil Beat editor Patti Epler also got a similar barrage of online criticism from commenters when she wrote her article “Missing the Point on Tulsi Gabbard’s Surf Video.”

Epler’s point was many of the responders to Blair’s report seemed incapable of understanding that the thrust of his report was that Gabbard’s office obfuscated when asked why Gabbard failed to show up at an important hearing on one of the congresswoman’s key issues: our country’s continuing uneven treatment of war veterans.

My guess is the responders, who appeared to be missing the point, understood perfectly well that Gabbard’s office had been manipulating the truth because the office was worried Gabbard’s choice to continue surfing might make her seem superficial.

The responders’ goal was to deflect attention from the uncomfortable fact that Gabbard’s office initially failed to tell the whole story.

As I read the two Civil Beat reports, I was wondering who all those people are, and why do they jump in almost simultaneously with their ad hominem attacks on Blair and Epler and why do they all sound alike?

I got the answer a few hours later during a sunrise run with a friend from Washington, D.C., who explained I was reading push back from a “rapid response team” in action.

After a few calls, I learned more.

Rapid response is standard political practice. Every large campaign does it, Democrat or Republican.

Political consultant Dylan Nonaka, the former executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party, says rapid responders can be campaign staffers or campaign volunteers or supporters in the community who have been enlisted to stand by to respond when there is an unflattering story about their candidate.

“I don’t think the public realizes how deliberate it is and that it only works if it is deliberate because you don’t want overly passionate campaign supporters going off and writing crazy things,” he says.

Another concern is if the commenters all sound alike. “It looks creepy, like a put-up job, “ says a campaign consultant for one of Hawaii’s top Democrats.

That consultant says you try to keep the number of orchestrated commenters small, say just five not 30, so they appear to be genuinely concerned people out in the community, not “Astroturf,” a term for fake grassroots commenters.

Rapid response is standard political practice. Every large campaign does it, Democrat or Republican.

Political campaigns have always tried to put out a good spin to quell the fire of an unfavorable news report about their candidate, no matter how truthful the news report.

In the old days, a campaign would fight back with a news conference or the campaign would plant letters in the Letters to the Editor section in newspapers.

Nonaka says most large campaigns had a Letters to the Editor committee to write and then distribute the letters to selected campaign supporters to sign with their own names and mail to newspapers from their own addresses.

This is still a common practice by all political parties and even businesses and institutions under fire — planting letters to the editor.

But now with the Internet, it’s much cheaper, easier and faster with emails, Facebook postings, tweets and online comments to get out a favorable spin immediately on a candidate under fire in the news — and to try to denigrate the professionalism of a reporter writing a critical story.

Political consultant Nonaka says speedy responses are important because the longer damaging information is out there the more people will embrace it.

All a campaign needs is eager volunteers with their own cell phones or laptops to blast out emails, tweets and comments to online news reports.

A Democratic Party consultant says young campaign volunteers are the best to enlist for rapid responses.

“If they are young enough, they will do anything you ask. They are excited and wide-eyed to be on a campaign. The best part about young supporters is they are already hooked into social media with Twitter and Facebook accounts so they don’t look like sock puppets but real people in the community.”

When a response is needed, a political campaign will often lay out the arguments it wants the responders to echo to keep them on message.

“It is dangerous to fail to orchestrate a response because if you turn loose some freelancers they will say some outrageous things, get emotional, act like trolls and start attacking each other, “ said another consultant who calls rapid responders “cleaner teams.”

If the rapid response is sophisticated enough, it is difficult to separate campaign shills from genuine concerned readers.

But Malia Zimmerman, editor of the Hawaii Reporter, who has been slammed online for her own reports, says there are ways to tell who is a community person.

Campaign rapid responders ridicule reporters or news agencies for doing reports the responders say are not legitimate news stories.

Zimmerman says, “The meaner and more personal the comment is, the more likely it is to have come straight from someone on a political campaign team.”

Campaign rapid responders ridicule reporters or news agencies for doing reports the responders say are not legitimate news stories.  They take the content of a news report out of context to ridicule the reporter.  They slam reporters as sensation-seekers or self-aggrandizers.

Zimmerman says, “They are trying to hurt you. To make you think twice about covering the issue again. It is a predictable pattern to shoot the messenger — the reporter or the media outlet — to make them shy away from similar stories in the future.”

Zimmerman says a true community responder will usually stick to criticizing specific points in a report and will refrain twisting what a reporter has written to make the reporter sound off base; also, a community responder will resist questioning a reporter’s or news outlet’s professionalism.

Zimmerman says the public is smart enough to know when comments are not from the community but straight from a campaign.

But I am not sure. Even my very hardcore, longtime journalist husband, Bob Jones, was swayed after reading the dozens of online critical responses to Civil Beat’s story on Gabbard decision to continue her surfing interview in lieu of attending the veterans’ hearing.

He said he started wondering if Civil Beat’s story was really fair and necessary.

I told him that’s exactly how rapid response teams work to deflect attention from fair and accurate news stories when they are concerned the information might be damaging.

Now you know how it works. So do I.

 

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