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Some Nebraska politicians getting more comfortable with cyberspace confrontations
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Some Nebraska politicians getting more comfortable with cyberspace confrontations


Maybe it's the trickledown effect. 

State and local officials are using social media, particularly Twitter, more, and with more use comes more controversy. And they're getting more comfortable with that.  

In the past week, Gov. Pete Ricketts and his staff used Twitter to communicate their political views on taxes and a controversial chicken plant in Fremont. Monday, it was Ricketts tweeting (and reposting on Facebook), urging "the La Vista City Council to reject the Mayor’s proposed food and restaurant tax — bad for families and business!"

Then later Monday, Ricketts' strategic communications director, Taylor Gage, tweeted criticism of Lincoln radio station KLIN for a Drive Time Lincoln segment on a proposed chicken operation in Lancaster County that featured Jon Leo, an environmental attorney representing area residents opposed to the location. 

Gage's tweet: Sad to hear that @KLINRadio is giving air time to a voice promoting anti-agriculture #FakeNews — follow @krvn @BDoeschot @firefighter89 for real news on how agriculture is growing Nebraska.

That set off Jack Mitchell, KLIN's morning show host, who responded in a 12-part tweet defending the station and criticizing Gage, especially for his view that the media should be a cheerleader for agriculture and calling the program #fakenews. 

Mitchell: I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but b/c an opinion talk radio show features a guest (IN A TWO-PART SERIES THAT PRESENTS BOTH SIDES) with whom you disagree on a policy issue, or even on facts surrounding it, it doesn't equate to that station being hashtag fake news.

The next day, as planned, Drive Time Lincoln hosts interviewed Jessica Kolterman, spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, which collaborates with Costco to manage the poultry complex under construction near Fremont.

Gage tweeted later he stood behind his comments. In a 15-part tweet, he said that for generations, members of Nebraska media have served as advocates of agriculture, helping to promote growth and opportunity in the industry, and KLIN stoked "unfounded fears about modern day production agriculture."

Mitchell also wasn't backing down, tweeting, "on the critique of a Gov's comms aide chastising media in a clumsy, overbroad, ineffective way, asking for advocacy under the guise of journalism that results in a smear of a whole staff of great Nebraska reporters. I also absolutely stand by what I said."

The #fakenews reference brought criticism from beyond KLIN, with people who were following the debate saying it undermined Gage's credibility more than KLIN's. Others supported Gage's comments and use of the hashtag.

Twitter, according to Hootsuite, a social media marketing and management dashboard, handles 500 million tweets each day and has 326 million users each month. Twenty-four percent of U.S. adults are users; it's the No. 1 platform for government leaders; and users are described as politically polarized and volatile in nature.  

For the most part, state and local public officials such as Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and various state senators stick to the positive or just provide information in their social media posts. 

A few state senators are more political, which prompted a discussion on the legislative floor in the most recent session about social media posts. 

Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist addressed negative social media tweets about robust debates that were in her view getting out of hand.

"It singles out senators by name, sometimes by profession. It encourages ridicule. It allows followers to verbally eviscerate that senator," Geist said.

Julie Slama of Peru, the youngest senator, criticized those who play nice to get what they want and then hop on Twitter and openly disparage senators. "We need to realize that the next generation of Nebraskans are watching us and how we conduct ourselves in public, and that includes on social media," she said.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt said she had posted tweets critical of Ricketts, and about Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings after a debate on raising the minimum wage for tipped workers.

Social media is a great way to open discussions in the Legislature to more people, she said.

"I have never said anything on social media about my colleagues or people in the body or people in government that they didn't say themselves on the record," Hunt said. "I have absolutely zero regret about anything I've said. I'm going to keep it up." 

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, like others, was proud to say he stays away from it all.

"I thank God every day I've never been on Facebook; I've never been on Twitter, and I'm sure some of my opponents have scoured the internet looking. You will never find anything," he said.

The most-well-known public official using Twitter, of course, is @realDonaldTrump, who turns "locker-room talk ... into presidential speech," according to Politico, which "enables him to manhandle the public's attention, constantly yanking the media spotlight back on himself whenever it starts to wander." 

Public relations specialist Dan Parsons said Gage's tweet this week had the flavor of Washington and Trump, using inflammatory phrases such as #fakenews. 

Twitter is a good communication tool nonetheless, he said. But politicians and thought leaders need to have a plan and strategy to use it. 

In Nebraska, they use it more and more, he said, increasingly for getting attention and announcing policy, just like they turned to radio, then television technology as it came into use decades ago, followed by the internet. 

"It can be used for good, and it can be used for some pretty ugly stuff," said Parsons, of Lincoln. 

The term Gage used, #fakenews, is disingenuous and used to incite people against the media when it's not proper, Parsons said. The idea that every news story a politician disagrees with is fake news is dishonest and lazy. 

Chris Peterson, government relations consultant and former spokesman for Gov. Mike Johanns, has less of a problem with the hashtag. In fact, he's used it himself several times on Twitter. 

"It's kind of in-vogue," he said.

He saw something from the New York Times about a year ago that frustrated him, that was out-of-bounds, he said, and tweeted in reply to journalist and author Stephen F. Hayes: "The reporter and editor involved should be fired. #Fakenews." 

He has also tweeted #FakeNews twice to Sports Illustrated. 

Peterson said the more media channels elected officials and their surrogates use to communicate with the people they represent is good, and using social media to communicate their message and agenda is "absolutely appropriate." 

Ricketts, over recent months, took to Twitter to weigh in on a national controversy sparked after Nike pulled a patriotic shoe and to voice support for Alabama's newly signed bill that would restrict abortion in nearly every circumstance.

The governor, too, has recently started a podcast, "The Nebraska Way," in which he has interviewed former Gov. Kay Orr, astronaut Clayton Anderson, Tom Osborne, and a sixth-generation farmer from Hazard. 

"Every public official and their spokespeople have to decide how best to use each tool, whether it be Twitter or a news conference or a press release ... and where to draw lines in terms of what to say, what not to say and when to say it," Peterson said. 

In more than 25 years being in and around politics in Nebraska, he believes public officials are "very accessible," he added.  

"Add social media to the mix, that just takes our Nebraska public officials who participate in that way ... to the head of the class in how accessible they are and how open and transparent about the message and agenda they are trying to drive," he said. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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