How to Shut Down the Haters

It’s time to take decisive action against malcontents attempting to sabotage our local elections.

Former District 4 Supervisor Caren Ray announced last Thursday that she was running for Arroyo Grande City Council, an elected body she previously served on from 2010–13. Within minutes of her announcement press release being sent to the media, Ray was attacked by the same group of malcontents that sought to torpedo her supervisor campaign.

If Ray’s 2014 supervisor campaign has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t dismiss negative attacks. CalCoastNews and their contributor Kevin P. Rice have offered a sexist portrayal of Ray as a flimsy connoisseur of debauchery and a hapless apologist for Tony Ferrara, former Arroyo Grande mayor. The haters bizarrely assign blame for Ferrara’s comments and votes when he was mayor. The haters have turned a blind eye to her positions, and have disregarded any sort of discussion about her voting record.

Ray is also sharply criticized by the haters for her association with District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill, a frequent target of the fringe and the ironic subject of an extensive, online bullying campaign that labels him a “bully.”

While Hill is leading the conversation on how the county can survive beyond the closure of PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the haters are hard at work. Hill and his wife are the subject of smear campaigns spurred by CalCoastNews that accuse him of everything from being “business partners” with an embattled developer trapped in litigation to threatening one of his political opponents to orchestrating the 2013 DUI arrest of CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie. The website has amassed over a hundred articles about Hill, whose District 3 opponents are also active contributors to the website.

While a lot of people recognize their talking points and accusations as baseless, their zealotry cannot be disregarded. Notwithstanding conservatives would traditionally vote along party lines, conservative Democrats and independents are the most susceptible to these smear tactics. The haters are able to tap into personal reservations about the character and integrity of left-leaning leaders, especially when these leaders are friendly with developers. Even if there’s no conflict of interest, the perception of conflict is there. From that perception, misinformation and disinformation is conceived.

But there is hope. We can shut down the haters.

  1. Embrace the public.
    Since 2010, county leaders and candidates have shifted their outreach from public rallies to private fundraisers with special interest donors. In 2016, public accessibility and availability is considered a prized virtue among voters of all political stripes. Being accessible also shows that candidates can handle sharp criticism, even if that criticism contains misinformation.
  2. Consider the source.
    Candidates need to be aware of the source of misinformation even if there’s no need for public acknowledgment. Gossip and innuendo travel faster through social media than truth. And while candidates shouldn’t focus on addressing all of the incendiary claims directed at them, they should consider addressing the public in lieu of responding to the problematic source directly. In addition to their incessant cyberstalking, CalCoastNews has a long history of fabricating and exaggerating stories, though they’ve garnered a high volume of web traffic and social media engagement because of their “reporting.” While acknowledging their accusations are worth considering, I can’t recommend attributing them credit.
  3. Run a (mostly) positive campaign.
    Political campaigns should be viewed from lens of skeptics. If a candidate respond to accusations against them dismissively or negatively, voters will presume they are hiding something. If a candidate goes on the offensive and takes on the haters, voters will see the move as overly aggressive, especially if the candidate names individuals, not organizations. If a candidate decides to attack, there needs to be a balance that includes a positive, substantive response — preferably a cautiously optimistic outline of goals to pursue once elected.
  4. Stay on message.
    Politics in 2016 is more brutal than ever and it’s very tempting to get caught in the brutality. While their primary goal is to smear reputations of political candidates, the haters also consider their tactics diversionary. By getting caught in an endless loop of denials and sharp ripostes, the conversation about important issues is sufficiently undermined, and the allegations being addressed receive more unwarranted attention. The best antidote to diversion is dedication to the message. Make the message stronger than their hate.

Note: As a result of their underhanded tactics, the haters I mentioned earlier have lost a significant amount of credibility in the county — so there’s no need for political candidates to call them out by name. Like a lot of informed voters, I’ve witnessed their “strategies” backfire in glorious fashion without anyone’s assistance: from lying about a county supervisor attending a candidate’s forum to creating an assortment of anonymous Facebook pages that have spent thousands promoting tabloid smears to setting up bogus websites and robocalls that peddle unequivocally false claims.

Common sense candidates — from the left, right and everything in between — should rise above the anonymous trolling, hyperbolic hit-pieces and shady characters who prefer fighting in the dark than debating in the light. The best way to rise above it is for candidates to counter it on their terms and no one else’s.

Aaron Ochs is the president and founder of SLO Truth, a progressive political organization based in San Luis Obispo County.

TOAST Magazine Publisher, columnist and consultant from Morro Bay, California.

TOAST Magazine Publisher, columnist and consultant from Morro Bay, California.