The Sept. 18 email from an Angus King campaign staffer to the interns was marked urgent. “Take action!!” was stripped across the top in a bold font.

The problem? Unflattering reader comments posted below an online news story about King’s campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.

“There are 11 comments as of 4 p.m., almost all negative,” staffer Adam Lachman wrote. “Can you please take time to comment on this article and help correct the record?”

Over the next hour, King’s interns and volunteers, most using screen name aliases, peppered the Bangor Daily News story with comments that echoed talking points suggested by Lachman. One commenter, dubbed “Mysteriousways7,” reprinted Lachman’s suggestions nearly verbatim, then added a second post with a link to “Standing Up for Truth,” a King video also suggested by Lachman.

Lachman made two similar requests on Sept. 9 and Sept. 18 to post comments on news stories appearing on the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald websites.

The email and several others obtained by freelance writer Crash Barry, a vocal critic of King and his Senate candidacy, illustrate how the campaign deployed volunteers to comment, often anonymously, on online news stories to counter attacks and amplify support for King.

Although King may be criticized for the practice, he’s not the only one to use it. Political operatives say that using online readers’ comments, blogs and other forums have become part of modern campaigns that use any platform available to inflate support, project messages and counter opponents.

“As long as there have been chances for political campaigns to get a free shot at getting their message out, they’ve done it,” said Dan Demeritt, a political consultant who has worked on several campaigns, including Gov. Paul LePage’s. “This happens all the time, absolutely.”

Crystal Canney, King’s spokeswoman, said the campaign was engaging in the same activity as its opponents.

“They all do it,” Canney said. “I dare say that when you see a group of negative comments, or a group of positive comments, that those comments are affiliated with a campaign in some way.”

Not surprisingly, King’s opponents say the former governor has portrayed himself as a different kind of politician.

“This is in keeping with the disingenuous campaign that he’s run,” said Lance Dutson, the campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers. “He makes these pledges about negative ads and out-of-state money and he ends up running same old campaign that anybody else would run.”

He added, “It doesn’t surprise me at all that the enthusiasm that might appear online is bought and paid for, as opposed to actual grass-roots enthusiasm.”

Dutson denied that the Summers campaign used similar tactics. However, he said the Summers campaign has told its county chairmen that “engaging in the online discussion is a way to help.” He said he’s seen organized efforts by other campaigns to use reader comments.

“But we’re not giving marching orders for folks to comment on specific articles,” Dutson said.

A spokeswoman for Cynthia Dill, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said that the campaign did not engage in the practice.

Dennis Bailey, a political operative and former communications director for King when he was governor, said campaigns aren’t being honest if they deny using anonymous reader comments to create a false sense of public opinion. Bailey said operatives and volunteers will sometimes use multiple aliases to create “an echo chamber.”

Demeritt likened online commenting to the more time-honored practice of enlisting people to submit letters to the editor of print newspapers.

“Campaign supporters actually will draft up talking points and write letters for people to sign,” Demeritt said. “It’s a prevalent practice.”

Bailey agreed. He said campaigns also use online comments to plant rumors or opposition research. News organizations may attempt to separate the news product from the comments, he said, but the public often doesn’t make the distinction.

“The reality gets lost.”

Bailey blames the false reality on anonymity.

Bailey was involved in setting up “The Cutler Files,” the formerly anonymous website attacking former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. Bailey was fined $200 by the Maine Ethics Commission for that. He later sued the state, aruging that “The Cutler Files” was journalism; but recently a judge ruled against him.

The political operative acknowledges his contradicting opinions.

“My joke at the time was that I should have just posted ‘Cutler Files’ on the readers’ comments, piece by piece, and that would have been legal,” he said.

News organizations have struggled to deal with anonymity, which some believe has lowered the level of discourse in online comments. Last year the Sun Journal newspaper, of Lewiston, began requiring commenters to use their real names before allowing them to post comments on the paper’s website. The Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media papers on Monday switched to commenting system that requires posters to use their Facebook account. The Press Herald previously had allowed commenters to post anonymously. The Bangor Daily News still does.

Canney, with the King campaign, said that engaging in online comments isn’t a focus of the campaign.

“We do think it’s an important part of the campaign,” she said. “Do we think it’s the biggest part, or the most significant? Absolutely not.”

Canney would not comment on how the emails were leaked showing the campaign engaged in the commenting practice.

Barry, who shared the emails with the Press Herald, was similarily tight-lipped.

“I’ve had multiple, disillusioned sources within the King camp furnish me with various passwords, codes and tips since June that allowed me occasional access to the inner workings of the campaign,” he said.

Steve Mistler — 791-6345
smistler@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @stevemistler