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Cuomo takes to the virtual stump; Uses email, Facebook, Twitter to rally support, skirt media

In the face-to-face world of the State Capitol, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been accustomed in his seven months in office to compliments from Republicans and Democrats alike.

In his virtual world, however, Cuomo gets mixed reviews.

"May God curse you," one respondent snaps on Cuomo's official Facebook page.

"Don't make us regret voting for you more than we already are! BAN FRACKING," another shouts.

Not that gushing remarks aren't there, too.

"Great governor," one says.

"It's official. I'm more in love with Governor Cuomo," writes another.

So it goes in the rapidly expanding world of 21st century communication. Governors and other politicians are increasingly embracing the Internet and social media sites as a way to bolster political standing and try to rally the public on sometimes thorny issues.

With a list of 300,000 email subscribers that his administration has compiled, Cuomo throughout the recently ended legislative session was virtually active. He routinely popped out videos and letters and Facebook pleadings when he felt he needed armaments from the public to push the Legislature on everything from property taxes to gay marriage rights.

For the governor, as well as other politicians, the social networks and expanded use of emails are also handy ways to do an end-run around traditional and mainstream media.

"The whole idea of propaganda as a direct communication from a politician to the public is as old as politics. Technology has provided a number of new opportunities to basically bypass the media," said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo.

"Politicians, whether they're in government or in a campaign, would prefer to have their messages delivered to voters and citizens on terms where they have the most control, where it's unfiltered and not put in context," he added.

A spokesman for the governor suggests that Cuomo wants to talk directly to the people of New York.

"Gov. Cuomo has always said that he wants to return government to the people and engage them in the governing process, and using social media helps us do that in unprecedented ways," the spokesman said.

The governor's Facebook and Twitter pages are mostly used to announce upcoming speeches or point to news releases on various topics. The pages are relatively straight-forward without the personal touches some politicians employ on such sites.

As of last week, Cuomo had about 12,000 Twitter "followers," and about 9,300 said they "like" his Facebook page. The most frequent comments express opposition to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Some other governors are reaching more people on the Internet. California Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance, boasts 1.1 million Twitter followers and 126,000 "likes" on his Facebook page.

Closer to home, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has 48,000 Twitter followers and 43,000 on his Facebook account.

George Pataki was the first governor in New York to expand the use of the government's Internet presence in the 1990s. But David Catalfamo, a former communications director for Pataki who now is a lobbyist in Albany, sounded a bit jealous of the opportunities Cuomo now has to reach New Yorkers with such lightning speed.

"You have an ability today to push out your message to an audience that cares about the issues you want to talk about. I think it's terrific. It creates a better-informed public and allows officials to talk directly to citizens," he said.

In the past, governors could hit the stump for a personal appearance or send faxes and letters as a way to directly touch New Yorkers.

>Old rules gone

"Now, with email and Facebook, because of that instantaneous communication, it's much more effective," he said.

Also gone are some old rules in Albany. Catalfamo recalled years ago when a rule of thumb was that it took five letters from constituents to get a lawmaker to sit up and take notice.

Now, with email so much easier to send, the number is higher, but no one is certain exactly how many it takes to move a lawmaker.

In the recent session, several lawmakers dismissed the volume of emails they were getting on the gay marriage debate because, they said, so many were clearly coming from out of their districts as part of a mass-mailing campaign.

The Council of State Governments recently reported that all 50 governors and more than one-third of state legislators in the United States are on Facebook. Use of Twitter trails a bit behind.

"For many state officials, social media [are] a new frontier with both opportunities and risks," the group said.

Citing a University at Albany study, the council said social media sites permit governments to get useful information out to the public quickly and can be more convenient for certain populations, such as disabled people.

But the downsides, the group said, include the usual Internet risks: questions about accuracy of information posted and how to control possibly inappropriate comments. Also, it raised a concern that social media "could open up officials to unmanageable numbers of inquires from the public."

Cuomo's home page privacy policy notes that the site is intended to make it more efficient for New Yorkers to "interact with their state government." It also notes that information about visitors to the site -- including Internet protocol address, type of operating system, date and time and Web pages visited -- will be automatically stored and collected by the state. It said the information is kept for statistical analysis and is not sold.

Use of social media is spreading fast in government. The Congressional Management Foundation recently reported that 72 percent of managers in congressional offices believe social media outlets -- now used by most members of Congress -- have helped them communicate with constituents they've never before reached.

>Generation gaps

But there are clear generation gaps. The group said two-thirds of congressional staffers under age 30 believe social media are worth the time offices spend on them, compared with just one-third of staffers over age 51 who feel that way.

President Obama's 2008 campaign set the bar for use of social media and the Internet to reach people, according to Shelley Jack, a visiting professor at St. Bonaventure University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"He established the precedent, and a lot of government officials took notice," she said.

For politicians like governors, Jack said, social networking and email chains have a couple of advantages: They are far cheaper on their campaign advertising accounts, and they make it easier to cut reporters out as middlemen in the dissemination of information.

But Jack said government officials using social networks risk alienating followers if they use the sites merely as a form of propaganda. Having Facebook or Twitter accounts merely to put out news releases or photos of a politician at some event ends up insulting many readers of social media who look at the sites as two-way communication streets.

"You can't go in there and just push a message," Jack said. "It's more about recognizing there's a level playing field, and we have just as much power to speak in this space as you do. So, it's not a matter of coming in with a microphone, but joining a conversation."

In a random check of some of Cuomo's Facebook entries, the comments section is mostly a free-for-all, with people sometimes responding to something Cuomo has announced but often trying to make another point.

When Cuomo announced some state parks would remain open later during a recent heat wave, one Facebook responder said: "Yes, extending the swimming hours is great, but what will happen to the other places where people swim if fracking is allowed in NY State?"

Before taking office, Cuomo often talked of using new and expanding methods to reach New Yorkers and said he would take his message beyond the hallways of the Capitol.

"Andrew has always been marked by a suspicion of mainstream reporters and a desire to speak directly to what he views as his constituents without the filter of the media," said one former government communications official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.