October 13, 2013

Deirdre Fleming: Social media could play big role in black bear referendum

If the proponents of a black bear hunting citizen's initiative manage to get the required 57,000 signatures to get the issue on the 2014 ballot, an effort that began two weeks ago, much will be the same as when the issue went before voters in 2004.

It's the same ballot question -- a call to do away with black bear baiting, hounding and trapping in Maine -- and the two sides have many of the same arguments.

The proponents believe these practices are unfair, unsporting and unnecessary. They say the black bear population could effectively be controlled without "inhumane hunting practices."

Opponents say the black bear population will grow out of control and become a public safety problem, and managing Maine's wildlife should fall to state biologists, not the public.

But while much of the debate is the same, the way that debate will play out will be vastly different as it is argued this time on the Internet and across websites.

Facebook, for one, was in its infancy in 2004. These days, a Maine political science professor said, social media can make or break a campaign.

"A lot of issues come down to who can mobilize potential supporters, so social media makes sense," said University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt.

"The goal here is to get informed about an issue and also about an election and to have it remain on people's mind. And election day is easy to forget about. People don't always focus on the date. They don't connect the dots between speaking out and doing it on a given day. Social media helps."

In 2004, a sportsman's coalition fighting the black bear referendum helped defeat it by a narrow margin, just 53 to 47 percent.

That time, the Maine Friends of Animals had an informative website. The sportsman's coalition had no website to speak of, said James Cote, director of the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, which is fighting the ballot initiative this time.

This time both groups have websites that already have fresh content, breaking news ... and PayPal.

Schmidt said this also can be the difference in a political campaign.

"It definitely can be useful in terms of fund raising," Schmidt said. "As the Supreme Court (campaign finance) case shows, politics comes down to money."

Schmidt added, the downside of a stepped-up educational effort with both sides using websites or Facebook pages to reach supporters is voters could tire of the issue in 13 months.

"If the public is inundated with election information, especially when other campaigns related to other issues are running ads, the voters can turn off and stop listening, start deleting messages without reading them. If they really get exhausted enough, they can just stay home," Schmidt said.

The debate has gone public earlier this time largely because of social media.

Supporters of the ballot initiative, led by the Maine chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, started a petition drive two weeks ago, holding 14 rallies across the state and drawing about 100 volunteers.

The proponents have until Jan. 23 to send signatures to towns for verification. Then they must get those petitions to the secretary of state's office by Feb. 3 to get on the ballot in November, said Katie Hansberry, director of the Maine chapter of the Humane Society.

While Hansberry said the focus now is on signature gathering, she said that work is a great opportunity to teach more people about the initiative and why it's important that it pass. She said it's not too early to get the message out about the initiative through social media and the group's website, "Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting."

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