Blake Dowling: An election season plea for civility online

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Gainesville, Florida, 1997: The Gators were coming off a national championship run in football; I decided to have a run of my own for a student government office.

As an associate justice on the student traffic court the next step up was Chief Justice.

What a campaign.

I won; I still have the shirt — and I was a terrible Chief.

A campaign for the ages …

Desperately trying to get out of Gainesville, taking 18 hours that summer term, and trying to keep up a brisk social life. Student Senator, plus I had my own business. Not a suitable time for new responsibilities.

But what a crew I got to know in student government.

If only we had time for a “where are they now?” special for those Senators and other student leaders. A couple comes to mind: My constant companion in Senate, Lauren Blanchard, is now a specialist in African Affairs at Congressional Research Service in D.C.

After most meetings, we would hit the Salty Dog Saloon for a Senate review. In that era, you would also see folks like Chris Dorworth (lobbyist, former elected official), Laurel Lee (our former Secretary of State and now a congressional candidate), Nikki Fried (Commissioner of Agriculture who is running for Governor), and Ashley Moody (our current Attorney General) roaming the halls of UF student government.

It was a fun time, and I was glad I dove into that world. Plus, it is always nice to see those Gators in the news doing what they do today at an elevated level.

Good luck with your campaign Laurel Lee and thank you for your service to our state.

So, 26 years later election season is upon us again.

It is noisier than ever, and the Primaries are right around the corner; November will be here before you can say “are Christmas trees on sale yet?”

Speaking of the fall, you know how college football coaches say “we block out the noise” as they get ready for a big game? That is not possible with an election as it is pure noise for all involved from start to finish. Mailers, TV ads, radio spots, billboards, speeches, events, posts (and more posts), fundraising, email blasts, rants, columns, it is a lot to take in.

Noise is the goal.

Let’s not forget the phone calls too, I got a call from Daniel Uhlfelder the other day as he is campaigning for Attorney General. We have been family friends since the late 80s.

Speaking of friends in Tallahassee, the gloves are off in the race for Mayor; incumbent John Dailey and Kristen Dozier are battling for the opportunity to service.

I consider them both friends, and wish them a nice clean, campaign.

It is odd when you get older and know people running for office. Some other friends are battling for office in North Florida: Nick Maddox is chasing a County Commissioner spot, and Jay Revell, the consultant on my book “Professionally Distanced,” as well as a golf writer and business owner, is battling in a different race. I like the “hey there, neighbor” he uses.

Good luck fellas — and ladies.

What to do, I try and vote locally for the right candidate regardless of political affiliation (don’t let your head explode, it’s OK, some people do that). I think a willing to cross party lines occasionally is the way to get some things done in the nation. Same for elected folks (obviously) but that’s a big subject so let’s focus on what is being done around this election to keep it clean, prepare and less noisy.

Do they have noise-canceling headphones for elections yet?

The first thing as a voter is to prepare and read up on the amendments for the fall. They are clearly written by a CIA cryptographer, so be ready.

My PSA for today: When you jump on social media how about dialing back the name-calling and hate; no one is going to be swayed by your post to vote differently.

I know I sound like Dr. Rick, “so using a speaker phone in a store, is that a good idea — he has blue hair, we all see it, we all see it.”

But seriously, enough long ranting out there.

We the people do not care; to people fed up with those parties, report those who cross the line with name-calling, etc. and block them too.

We all have a responsibility to help the social giants’ police their sites. If you see something horrific on the road in real life (a crash, mugging, etc.), you aren’t just going to dive right by without calling the authorities. It’s the same logic.

Speaking of social media giants, they are not just keeping hate speech in check but keeping fake accounts and bad actors overseas from getting in the mix. The Russian-backed Internet Research Agency and the relentless bombardment of fake accounts and posts caused massive disruption in the 2016 election.

Have we and the cyber giants learned from that experience? It would appear so, as 50 + fake organizations have been brought down thus far according to the Meta team.

To read a deep dive on Meta’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Enforcements click here.

Twitter banned political ads altogether in 2019 and last year overhauled its Civic Integrity Policy which helps cut down on misleading information around elections and relies on algorithms (as well as user input) to enforce it. Those efforts — along with account verification and other checks and balances — have the platform optimistic that things will be better this go around.

Will it be perfect? No, but we should not be caught off guard on so many fronts like in 2016.

What is the state doing? We all know Florida has ramped up cybersecurity in recent years, but what else are they doing? In fact, there are workshops held in conjunction with other states while ramping up defenses to make sure they are ready for anything. There are also laws going into place this summer to keep social media giants from de-platforming those in office, seeking office or journalistic enterprise.

I think one thing these people running for office have in common is a willingness to put themselves out there, to be picked apart by the media (and adversaries) so they can have the opportunity to serve our state.

That would imply a deep love for their community and state; I wish them all well. Sound cheesy? The world needs a little more cheese and commonality and less division.

To that end, I thought about skipping this column as I am sure some people will be immediately triggered by the mention of the word, election, but it is time to be civil, for us middle-of-the-roaders on all sides to speak up, and not let radicals dominate the conversation — as they are indeed the noisiest.

In closing, this is not an endorsement of anyone or any party.

Some tech facts, an interesting commonality among our leaders; my last point is that the people who preach hate and violence regardless of their vote or beliefs are outnumbered by those that respect all peoples and our democracy; they are just noisier than the others, as I said.

Like it, love it, bash it, hate it, comment rudely, do your thing. Cheers to our imperfect (but still the greatest) nation on earth since 1776.

___

Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies; he can be reached at [email protected].

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