Athens West Side

Athens’ West Side. Photo by Ben Peters

Moderators of the influential Athens West Side Facebook group, a community with a history of hosting consequential political posts from officials and candidates seeking public office, blocked Independent City Council candidate Damon Krane from sharing his campaign announcement on the page, despite allowing nearly identical posts months earlier from first ward candidate Solveig Spjeldnes, a Democrat.

The move by the page’s moderators highlights the power a small, decentralized group wields over an online space that candidates have historically used to attract public support among the city’s West Side constituency who frequent the popular social media group. It’s also a digital platform for discussion about local policy that bleeds into the real world, and sometimes the City Council Chambers.

Krane, who would represent the city’s West Side as an at-large councilmember if elected, made a post last week announcing his candidacy to attract more attention to his campaign as he struggled to garner the requisite signatures to get on the ballot. Moderators swiftly struck it down, saying it violated the group’s rules that prohibit spam and self-promotion.

A subsequent post Krane made took umbrage with the moderator’s decision to slash his previous message and was blocked from immediately being shared. A note that accompanied his attempt to publish said he must await review and approval from a moderator before it could go live. His follow-up post was never published.

He made a similar post to the Athens East Side Facebook page that was also axed, but that page has historically opposed political content and is far less active than the West Side page. Public officials and candidates rarely post to it, if at all.

Krane said the decision by moderators of both pages significantly hindered his ability to attract potential petitions, especially on the West Side since that part of town is where the vast majority of his support came when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2019, according to unofficial results from The Athens County Board of Elections.

Candidates without a major party affiliation are required to secure more signatures to get on the ballot than a Democrat or Republican, leading Krane to believe his campaign was disproportionately harmed by the moderators’ decision.

The pandemic compounds the issue since it's more difficult for candidates to meet people face-to-face to sign their petitions, he said. Signatures for Krane to get on the ballot are due May 3.

When Spjeldnes posted her City Council campaign announcement in January to the West Side group, the comments thread sparked conversation about city policy that ultimately shaped her agenda.

Spjeldnes said in an interview last week that the dialogues she had on the page with West Side residents were instrumental to her campaign, and that she believed people who frequent the group want to hear from candidates about their political positions.

“I think it would serve them well to include at-large candidates,” she said of the page’s moderators, adding that campaigning on social media is a crucial alternative amid the pandemic.

First ward City Councilmemeber Arian Smedely, who also used the page in 2019 to announce her bid for office, said her interactions within the group played a role in her campaign. She also used the page in the past to promote campaign events, though it’s not clear if the anti-self-promotion rules existed back then.

The West Side page’s three administrators, Paul Kristofco, Tara Griffitts and Ricky Chilcott, didn’t return requests for comment on the decision to remove Krane’s posts while allowing other candidates to share digital campaign literature.

Moderator Kirk Greenfield, who works for Parkersburg TV station WTAP-TV, said in a Facebook message that the group’s moderators and administrators don’t consult one another on matters of policy enforcement, and that he isn’t sure who decided to remove Krane’s posts.

“You need to realize that the West Side page is a very eclectic group of people, each with their own agenda,” Greenfield said. “Therefore, the administration and direction of the page also has fluctuated with the influx and departure of people over the years.”

The other two page moderators, Jacob ‘Buddah’ Hagman and James Harris, didn’t return requests for comment.

The West Side page’s influence extends beyond helping candidates campaign. More recently, activity on the page moved City Council to consider a significant change to city law.

West Side resident David Kurz posted to the group in March an example of an Ohio city placing a ban on landlords denying renters housing on the basis of income, an issue Krane and other progressives have called on City Council to enact for years.

Kurz tagged Smedley and at-large City Councilmember Beth Clodfelter in the comments thread, to which both responded saying they would bring the issue to Council.

Weeks later, Smedley introduced the idea to the rest of the body in committee where members discussed how they could make the ban reality. While a formal ordinance on the matter hasn’t been introduced, Smedley said the seed for action was planted when she saw Kurtz’ post on the West Side page.

During that committee meeting Spjeldnes also came out in favor of the ban, an issue she previously discussed at length with Krane in a past comments thread in the West Side group.

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