Candidates’ social media posts have come into question in two key state Senate races as opponents focus on postings by two Republicans who are part of a statewide effort to whittle down Democratic power in the General Assembly.
District 30 hopeful Ron George’s Facebook posts in 2015 and 2016 were the subject of a campaign against him — the posts question climate change, compare then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler and invoke a conspiracy about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace, among other things.
The Democratic Senate Caucus Committee created a website criticizing several of these old posts — shared between his 2014 bid for Maryland governor and his current run for State Senate — as offensive or racist and peddling conspiracy theories.
George said the posts harken to his days as a provocateur, when he and a group of close Facebook friends from both sides of the political spectrum used their pages to combat each others’ viewpoints and stir up a conversation. He said the Republican Party was being blamed for a host of societal ills, so he was arguing against issues with Democratic and liberal ideology.
“It’s out of context. I’m not that kind of extremist,” he said. “I think that’s what they’re trying to prove or say. In my eight years in office, I didn’t do anything extreme. And this is after I was just out of office, and I was just getting into debates with people.”
He said he does not necessarily believe the things he posted on Facebook during that time, and today wouldn’t use his page that way.
“In today’s climate, I wouldn’t do that kind of thing. People today are offended at those type of things,” he said. “I should’ve taken all that down a long time ago.”
George’s opponent, Democrat Sarah Elfreth, said she didn’t think his dialogue from the time was constructive.
“I came up in my professional life with Facebook. I was aware that nothing is private,” she said. “I think if you would be too embarrassed to say something out loud at a coffee shop or in the grocery store, you shouldn’t say it on Facebook. I don’t think (George’s posts are) reflective of our community.”
Professor Richard Vatz, who teaches rhetoric and communication at Towson University, said when people post on Facebook they can often lie with impunity — “and Donald Trump, who I don’t dislike as much as some, has set a bad example with his distortions of truth.”
Vatz, a prominent conservative on Towson’s faculty, said the problem of exaggerating claims or telling outright lies plagues both sides of the aisle. He pointed to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2012 claims that presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not pay any taxes in the previous decade when he indeed did. Reid never apologized for the falsehood, instead telling a CNN reporter, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
Facebook is similar to any other political venue, Vatz said, where people and candidates alike should be responsible for their speech.
“I don’t excuse anyone using any venue to mislead people,” he said.
George and other Senate candidates, including Elfreth, have used their Facebook and Twitter accounts in the last year to invite followers to campaign events, endorse fellow party hopefuls, and opine on local and federal policy. George recently used his page to decry a local effort by Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley to install a temporary bike lane on Main Street.
But previously, he used his page to argue against government-funded education, gay marriage, climate change and national political figures.
In one post, side-by-side images of Clinton and Hitler accompany similar quotations attributed to each of the figures. Hitler’s quotation reads, “Society’s needs come before the individual’s needs,” while the quotation under Clinton’s image reads, “We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what is best for society.”
Neither Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany through World War II and the man responsible for the murder of millions, nor the Democrat from New York who would later run for president actually said the words attributed to them in the image.
While George characterized the pair as “people that are not able to trust individual liberty” in the 2015 post, today he said he was not trying to compare Clinton to Hitler, but merely highlight similarities between the false quotes.
George has shared other misleading information, including a fake article alleging Hollywood actors were going to strike until Trump leaves office.
Today, he said he should have fact-checked first.
George, in campaign literature, has called himself the Green Elephant, a title he said he earned from his fiscally responsible environmental legislation. But in 2016, he shared a Breitbart article about a NASA climate change study that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the environmental phenomenon. In the post, he proposed climate change is a ploy to take away property rights and introduce new taxes.
“The truth is, having these left wing social causes gives one a feeling of purpose (replaicing faith) and justifies attaking indifidual (SIC) freedom,” George wrote in 2016. “it should always be about protecting individual freedom and the individual soul. NOT ABOUT SOCIAL CHANGE WHICH DESTROYS THE INDIVIDUAL and therefore FREEDOM ITSELF.”
In an interview, George said he does believe in climate change. The theory was an attempt to start a conversation, he said.
Another Facebook post from 2015 refers to Obama as a “Kenyan prince” in order to compare the Affordable Care Act to a popular email scam at the time, where someone identifying as a Nigerian prince would offer victims large sums of money in exchange for banking information.
George said he copy and pasted the post but did not intend to reference the racist “birtherism” conspiracy, which posits that Obama was not eligible to be president because he was actually born in Kenya. George said he does not believe in the birther conspiracy.
George is not the only Republican state Senate hopeful to draw criticism for inflammatory posts.
In October, the Council for American-Islamic Relations condemned Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso for “hate-filled, Islamophobic and xenophobic” posts about Muslims.
Grasso is running for state Senate in District 32 against Del. Pam Beidle, D-Linthicum. Like District 30, the vacant seat is seen as crucial in the Maryland Republican Party effort to break the veto-proof majority in the Senate.
The posts said, among other things, “One nation under God, Not Allah. America is not a Muslim nation. America is not an Islamic nation. America is a Christian nation” and “Share if you think President Trump should ban Islam in American Schools.”
In an interview with The Capital after CAIR asked him to resign from the County Council, Grasso reaffirmed his posts. He did not return a request to comment for this story.
Social media has become a tool for political candidates and elected officials to communicate with constituents, announce legislative efforts or support other political initiatives.
Trump uses his Twitter account not only to attack political opponents and respond to criticism but also to announce policy initiatives. Trump fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Twitter and announced a ban on transgender troops in the military.
Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said candidates like Grasso and George should expect constituents and opponents alike to examine and report on anything posted on social media — even if those posts were intended for a more intimate audience.
“My take is that if you’re a politician, anything you put in the public space, it’s fair game,” Nataf said. “Anything that the public can access is in the public realm, thus there are no close friends, close circles.”
Trump has made effective use of his social media because his base is ready to insulate him from criticism, Nataf said. Whether constituents will do the same for inflammatory comments from local candidates remains to be seen.
People who defended or criticized George and Grasso before will continue to do so. But the small handful in between, “that’s the group for which this is consequential,” said Nataf, who pointed to the small margin separating state Sen. John Astle and challenger Don Quinn in the 2014 District 30 election.
“If you can shape 1,000 votes by some revelation that goes to character, that is a significant consequence,” he said.