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Spin Control: Social media leads to inane politics

It’s not clear yet whether this year’s campaign staffs are hell-bent on testing Marshall McLuhan’s theorem that “the medium is the message” or are so enamored with high tech that they think it’s the be-all and end-all of politics.

Last week, a member of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna’s campaign went from paid staffer to suspended staffer to fired staffer in the span of three days. Kathlyn Ehls had typed messages into Twitter that called for Asian-Americans to “learn English” and senior citizens who walk too slowly across the street in front of her vehicle to “get a wheelchair.”

Ehls had tweeted these uncharitable thoughts months before going to work for the McKenna campaign. But the recent college graduate apparently was unaware of, or forgot, the cardinal rule of venting in cyberspace: Things on the Internet have a nasty habit of living forever and surfacing at inopportune times. These did, last Monday, on Seattle blogs.

Democrats and some members of the Asian and Pacific Islanders community, a small but powerful voting bloc in Washington, were up in arms. Some called not just for an apology and Ehls’ termination but for other reparations, such as for McKenna to support same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and a greener environmental plan – none of which would appear to have the slightest connection to her transgressions. They might’ve demanded the young staffer’s head on a pike at the entrance to Seattle’s International District, but the city and state permits for such a display would probably take too long.

Wednesday, after appearing before the campaign’s Asian American Coalition, to whom she apologized, Ehls was fired, McKenna campaign manager Randy Pepple said. She is perhaps the first person in Washington political history to tweet herself out of a job.

In an unrelated matter, the State Republican Party chose last week to take issue with something in Democrat Jay Inslee’s campaign. Not his stance on taxes or health care or education, which they have questioned regularly. Rather, spokeswoman Meredith Kenny decided to diss Inslee for his Facebook status, in which the Democrat and former congressman promised to be a governor who will “proudly stand with women, not someone who pals around with anti-choice politicians.” (For those unfamiliar with Facebook, status is where one writes about work, education, residence, family and other things one would like half the planet to know.)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kenny’s affiliation.

Well oh yeah? an outraged Kenny fired back by email. Was Inslee standing with women when he got fundraising help from Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a prostitution scandal, or when he delayed giving back a $1,000 donation “from his friend ‘Anthony “I like to show my” Weiner’ ”?

Such devotion to tech silliness didn’t start this week – in May, Michael Baumgartner, a pretty serious guy, and a state senator who would like to be a U.S. senator, proudly announced in a news release that he had more Facebook “likes” than incumbent Maria Cantwell. Thankfully, she did not challenge him to a duel over the total number of people tied to each candidate by Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and any of the other services that connect people to each other cybernetically.

My concern is that the silliness seems to be growing. Maybe that’s because we’re in the summer campaign lull, but left unchecked things on the Internet can grow logarithmically or even exponentially. It could be seriously out of hand by fall.

This curmudgeonly carping isn’t to suggest there was some halcyon time before the Internet in which campaigns engaged solely in meaningful dialog over serious issues with no thought of personal attacks. Before Twitter, there was email, and before that faxes, and before that anonymous fliers and unsigned poison-pen letters. Thomas Jefferson’s enemies would have found a way to squeeze the Sally Hemings allegations into 140 characters for a tweet, with a link and several hashtags.

The point, rather, is to suggest that technological advances seem less likely to make the political arena better and more likely to facilitate the inane.

Spin Control, a column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears with daily items and reader comments at spincontrol.

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