Are politicians or candidates responsible for offensive comments on their Facebook pages, even if they aren’t the authors of such comments?
That’s a question arising in Colorado from two Facebook comments related to anti-choice posts.
State Rep. Stephen Humphrey (R-Severance) posted an article on his Facebook page this month titled, “Speaker Hullinghorst blasts ‘extreme right’ anti-abortion legislators.”
Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder), whose defense of abortion rights was described in the article, is speaker of the Colorado house.
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In response, Facebook commenter Daniel Lanotte wrote, “Just think where we would be now if Speaker Hullinghorst’s mother had chosen the Speaker’s solution.”
Humphrey, who introduced a bill last month aimed at ending legal abortion in Colorado, did not return a phone call about whether he was aware of the comment.
Despite the comment on Humphrey’s Facebook page, Lanotte said he did not mean to insult Hullinghorst.
“I was not saying that I wish she were aborted,” Lanotte told Rewire. “I’m not saying that. I don’t think anybody should be aborted. And that’s the point. I do not believe in abortion. I believe abortion is murder.”
In a similar instance, Casper Stockham, a Republican aiming to unseat U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver), is refusing to delete a January 25 comment on Stockham’s Facebook page written in response to an anti-choice article with the headline, “Breaking: Grand Jury Indicts pro-life investigator behind baby parts video; clears Planned Parenthood.”
After Stockham posted the article, a commenter wrote, “Who the hell is this judge that determined this? I’m so angry at Planned Parenthood right now. I wish someone would just blow up their facilities.”
“I saw that,” Stockham said when asked by Rewire about the Facebook comment. “It’s just stupid. There’s a lot of things people say that are stupid. I don’t want to get into policing what people say, but I have no problem saying it’s stupid.”
Stockham, who is anti-choice, says he won’t delete the comment from his Facebook page.
“If there’s something I write that’s stupid, I’ll take it down, but other people’s comments, I don’t have time,” he said, explaining that he spends a lot of time posting on Facebook. “That’s all I’d be doing.”
Stockham’s attitude toward his Facebook page could raise objections in the court of public opinion, a media analyst told Rewire.
“When you look at the sheer volume of what people put on Facebook, it’s unrealistic to expect staff or candidates to keep up with it,” said Boise State University associate professor Justin Vaughn, author of Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns. “They might be getting thousands of comments. Unless we know there’s active support, we should be cautious about inferring that inaction means tacit support.”
Vaughn said the expectation could be different if a politician knows about the comment or actively promotes it, by retweeting a tweet on Twitter or “liking” a post on Facebook.
“If the campaign is made aware of an offensive comment and refuses to take action, that’s another story,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said there could be a political expectation that a candidate will use “certain moments to communicate with the electorate about the limits of political discourse.”
He pointed to a town hall during the 2008 presidential race as an example, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) corrected an audience member’s assertion that then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) was untrustworthy and “an Arab,” despite McCain’s efforts, as the New York Times noted, to portray Obama as a “friend of terrorists” the week prior.