Larry Hogan’s Online Astroturf


The campaign of Larry Hogan had a Google Hangout scheduled for tonight to discuss a “unique volunteering opportunity for our most engaged supporters!”

Last week, Joe Steffen wrote about the email from Hannah Marr of the campaign inviting people to participate in it. I received that email also and I had several other people forward it to me. I hate to break Joe Steffen’s heart, but that message went to the whole campaign e-mail list.

I had heard before from some 2nd Amendment supporters and from some pro-life supporters about their comments or questions being deleted from the Hogan campaign’s Facebook page. Some of these were off-topic comments by people who were frustrated by Hogan’s sticking strictly to his script, but others were by people who asked 2nd amendment questions on pictures of Hogan at a gun show.

I just looked at their Facebook page tonight as I write this, and the Hogan campaign is still getting that kind of question:


As someone who has administered a Facebook page that had over 250,000 likes, I’m sure some of what the Hogan campaign has encountered via comments was much worse than that. For that reason, I didn’t find it that interesting and didn’t write about it. It’s just part of doing business if you want to play the game with an active Facebook page with a large number of followers.

Here’s the relevant part of the email sent last week from Marr:

As you may know, our campaign to change Maryland began with a Facebook page. Since then it has grown into the largest and fastest growing movement in the state dedicated to bringing fiscal restraint & common sense to Annapolis. Through the innovative use of social media, we have cultivated a community of over 86,000 Republicans, Independents, and Democrats who are committed to changing Maryland for the better.

Social media is a unique tool that CAN have a real impact on this year’s election. By participating in the discussion in our online community, you can communicate with real people in our state about why Maryland needs a change and why you believe the Hogan-Rutherford campaign is the best chance our state has to reverse the debilitating damage the O’Malley-Brown administration has had on our economy.

We can win the fight for Maryland’s future this November, but we need the grassroots support of knowledgeable Marylanders like you to help us spread our message and secure the support of a diverse array of voters.

If you would like to learn more about this volunteer opportunity, please join us for a Google Hangout on Thursday, May 1 at 8 pm. There you will hear from our social media team about what you can do to get started.

It seems the general lack of engagement, the off-topic comments, and the other things that the campaign has had to police out of their comments have been deemed problematic by the social media team at the Hogan-Rutherford campaign. Therefore, they were asking for these volunteers to gin up comments from supporters on their own Facebook page. That may be the first case of a political campaign or organization trying to astroturf their own page. Of course, with the groundwork laid for it now, they could easily activate these volunteers to go do the same on other websites and Facebook pages.

There are plenty of ways to organically increase engagement on your Facebook page without resorting to astroturfing like this. With over 87,000 likes on the Change Maryland page, the Hogan campaign shouldn’t have a huge problem generating organic user engagement or even making things go viral if they make their content engaging.  Dan Bongino never seems to have a problem with engagement on his Facebook page or even making things go viral, but then again his content is genuine and engaging, rather than boilerplate.

Of course, the 87,000+ likes are not “an army of volunteers” like Change Maryland (and later Hogan campaign) press releases claimed. They’re not even all voters, let alone all Larry Hogan supporters. That’s just the nature of Facebook. Change Maryland’s Facebook page was started on March 12, 2011.  They sent out several press releases at various levels of likes touting how many they had. They’ve created memes and other graphics for their page with the number of likes they have and often referred to them all as supporters.

In fact, one such press release was sent out by Hannah Marr of Change Maryland on December 11, 2013. It heralded the fact that Change Maryland had reached 70,000 likes. I sent a reply inquiring if they had been doing any Facebook advertising to help get those 5,000 likes they said they had gotten in the two and a half weeks following their Harvest Party. At the time, I wasn’t planning to write about it. It was just a question I asked out of curiosity. The next day, when Change Maryland sent a press release on another subject, I was no longer on the list.

Facebook advertising is normal for any political campaign or organization. I’m not sure what necessitated that reaction to me simply asking a question about it. There’s no way to tell for sure without a little extra digging with the IRS (or by asking Change Maryland since they are required to provide their financials upon request) what was spent on Facebook advertising by Change Maryland prior to the campaign controlling the page. We do know however, how much money the Hogan for Governor campaign has spent on Facebook advertising since February.

At some point around the time Hogan announced he was running for Governor and filed his financial paperwork a state campaign authority line went on the About page of the Change Maryland Facebook page. Change Maryland is a LLC with the state of Maryland and also filed paperwork with the IRS a few years ago organizing itself (more on all that in an upcoming most.) Without even getting into the gymnastics that may or may not have had to take place to move a Facebook page from a federal campaign organization (registered as a state LLC) to a state campaign committee, we can look at what has happened since then.

Hogan’s campaign finance report indicates the campaign spent $6,454.85 on Facebook advertising between February 3 and April 14, 2014. There were payments made on March 3, March 20, and April 2. That is a hefty amount of advertising considering how inexpensive Facebook advertising is. We don’t know that Change Maryland spent money on Facebook advertising before that when they got the bulk of their likes, but Hannah Marr’s behavior when I just asked a question via email about it certainly seems to indicate they were sensitive about the issue.

If you throw in all the Facebook advertising with the fact that they had a meeting tonight to try to drum up volunteers to astroturf comments on their own page, it would seem that some sort of conclusion could be reached to characterize their 87,000+ people who have liked their page. This is only compounded by the event they held earlier this year with a group of hand-picked bloggers they thought were all sycophants.

The important thing to remember, as I already said, is that likes aren’t volunteers. They aren’t all voters. They aren’t all Hogan supporters. I’ve noted before the follower counts aren’t the end-all and be-all of social media platforms despite what some people might think.  I’ll look forward to revisiting the Facebook advertising expenditures on future campaign financial reports as well as looking to see if the Change Maryland reports with the IRS show any more insight in previous online spending. It will also be interesting to see what sort of changes happen on the Change Maryland page itself as a result of this new astroturf strategy.

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton is an award-winning blogger who has been aggregating and blogging since 1998. He has worked as a reporter, in government, and as a communications professional in Columbia, SC and Washington, DC.

Quinton is a native South Carolinian who has lived in Baltimore since 2006. He is a recent convert to the Catholic Church and is active in the Knights of Columbus. He has been involved in the pro-life movement nationally and locally since 2010.

Quinton is a veteran who served as an intelligence analyst in the Army National Guard. He is also an Eagle Scout.
Jeff Quinton