Massachusetts’ online communities aren’t typically organized around candidates.
Most online activists there cut their teeth advocating around specific issues.
I speak from first-hand experience as the former digital director for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s re-election campaign. And while he cruised to victory, winning by 30%+ and with a wide governing mandate, it was a tough race for the campaign online.
We were smacked around by pretty much every online constituency group you could imagine. From affordable housing and infrastructure advocates to #BlackLivesMatter supporters and demonstrators against his public safety record; each online community wasn’t so much organized in support of our opponent as they were in support for their pet issues and united in opposition to the Mayor. If you’ve never been on the other side of a swarm of angry online bicycle enthusiasts, whew—it was wild.
It led to a dynamic online best described as continuous noise.
Continuous noise is what I call the persistent background chatter, usually negative, that follows certain candidates online. It’s a low-level hum that occasionally rises to a fierce crescendo, but is almost always in the background of the internet conversation.
For Mayor Walsh, the background noise online was persistent from the day I started on the campaign and was almost always about allegations of racism, corruption, or favoritism. It made it impossible some days to post any content without it getting swarmed with hatred and bile.
And I do mean hatred and vile.
We had a spreadsheet internally that tracked online attacks and we eventually added a tab to track staffer attacks—some were rather mundane, but others were racial and/or discriminatory in nature. Some attacked our interns and trying to force them offline; some trolled and doxed senior officials on the campaign; others attacked the Mayor for his sobriety. They focused their attacks on staffers of color for supporting the Mayor.
It was a game to them—see how many staffers they could get to block them:
And while it didn’t work against the Mayor in 2017 it had worked recently.
Mayor Walsh’s attempt to host the Olympics in Boston a few years earlier had led to an early defeat in his tenure and emboldened his opponents online. “No Boston Olympics has had an out-sized effect on the public debate over the Olympics—driven largely by the group’s ability to tap into social media and its consistent presence at public meetings.” Opposition to the games grew and the coordinated attacks online helped to sway public opinion against the project and the Mayor lost to #10PeopleOnTwitter.
I say all of that to say this—those same dynamics seem at work today for Markey.
His climate work has brought him not only a passionate online army within the state but an outsized one nationally that’s helping to fuel his campaign. But these are not grassroots supporters loyal to Senator Markey or any other candidate—they are issue oriented and aren’t accustomed to playing nice with others. It’s a group that I’ve seen first hand traffic in the worst instincts of the internet. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising they’ve reached for the low-hanging fruit—death threats against a Kennedy.
My advice? There is no way around them—the only way is through them.
Ignore the continuous noise and keep pushing forward.
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