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Some say many social media posts favor particular candidates for City Council.

SCREENSHOT - Much political discourse takes place on both The People of Wilsonville and Wilsonville Community Page.

At the founding of the American experiment — or at least according to the idealized version — politically-engaged citizens met to exchange ideas within the so-called "public square" and perhaps leave with a new perspective.

Now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where in-person interaction is limited, the public square is desolate and political conversation has largely shifted online.

In Wilsonville, much of the discourse surrounding the City Council election takes place on two Facebook groups: People of Wilsonville and Wilsonville Community Page. Both have considerable reach — about 6,700 people are members of the People of Wilsonville and 3,900 in the Wilsonville Community Page. By comparison, 7,480 Wilsonville residents voted on the May 2020 term limits ballot measure. And both pages include seemingly never-ending political discussions, especially close to elections.

But, when switching between pages, one might feel like they've entered a parallel universe — where different politicians are highlighted and others censored.

"They both seem to be just a tad biased," Wilsonville resident Kate Johnson said. "It seems to me more people on People of Wilsonville are leaning toward one candidate (for mayor) and the other one (Wilsonville Community Page) is leaning toward the other candidate."

The People of Wilsonville page started in 2015 while its counterpart was created in 2016.

According to Dina Ochs, a Wilsonville Community Page admin, the group was created because some felt there were too many out-of-town members of People of Wilsonville. The page initially did not allow political commentary, but admins changed their tune after noticing that posts promoting the candidacies of then-Wilsonville City Council candidates Ben West and John Budiao were removed from People of Wilsonville during the 2018 election.

"It was my idea to say, 'Why don't we just keep it local politics only and we will allow everybody to post from both sides?'" Ochs said.

Now, West is running for mayor and Budiao is vying for a City Council seat again. And they both are frustrated about their treatment on People of Wilsonville, especially considering the reach of the page and because access to voters is largely limited due to the pandemic.

"It's sad when we try to help the community and then it's political and you have people out there who delete stuff," Budiao said.

People of Wilsonville admin Jen Weldon said she was bullied by West and his husband Paul Rummell, which is why she doesn't include their posts on her page.

"Knowing how far they went to hurt me, I did not want the wrong post, something being said wrong, me allowing a post to ignite that old flame and have to endure another six months of bullying," she said via Facebook Messenger.

West said the claim is untrue, that he wasn't sure what he could be accused of bullying for and that he is trying to stay above the fray this election cycle.

Rummell is also one of the Wilsonville Community Page administrators. And while the page includes posts from West's opponent Julie Fitzgerald as well as other candidates, much of the discourse consists of promotions or endorsements for West and Budiao. Some members have felt that the administrators censor those who are critical of West.

Kristyn Cooper, for one, added a laughing emoji to a West endorsement post. Soon after, one of the admins reached out to her asking if she was a Wilsonville resident.

"(The admin) said I had to give him my address to be a part of the group. I said I do live in Wilsonville. If you couldn't tell my daughter has a Wilsonville graduation picture on the front of my page," Cooper said.

She wondered why an admin was contacting her about whether she lived in Wilsonville.

"When I asked him what did I do and why was I being singled out, he never responded to me," Cooper said.

Cooper then shared her experience on the People of Wilsonville page and said she was subsequently blocked from the Wilsonville Community Page. Cooper said she had soured on the page over time anyway.

"It became very political. The tone of it became very snipe-y and it became a platform for his candidacy rather than a community page," she said.

Jami Arbon relayed a similar experience. On a post, she asked why West bullies people online who disagree with him. Her commenting ability was subsequently turned off but was later turned back on by Ochs, she said. Others have posted on Facebook about their comments that were critical of West being deleted from the Wilsonville Community Page.

"The Wilsonville Community Page is not transparent in that it's being used for Ben West's political campaign," Arbon said.

Ochs said the admins try to keep things civil and don't try to favor particular people. She feels the page is fair and balanced to all viewpoints.

"When we get accused of deleting comments, it's when lines have been crossed, when people have been called names, when things are getting personal. But it's never anything that's on policy or anything like that," Ochs said.

Wilsonville resident Janis Sanford also said she's had even seemingly innocuous posts advocating for civility deleted from the People of Wilsonville page. Johnson, meanwhile, felt that the page is more caustic than its counterpart. However, both pages have guidelines meant to promote respectful dialogue and remove antagonism.

On the other hand, Sanford posited that the Wilsonville Community Page has been a valuable resource and enjoys reading posts from Budiao talking about what he's hearing in the community.

"I think the posts where individual candidates are posting about what they see or want to contribute to the community are really helpful," she said.

Weldon said West supporters have lobbied to have West included in People of Wilsonville. But she said most people in the group don't have a problem with how she runs the page.

"When these people were deleted from the other group they would post in mine about how they voiced opposing opinions to Ben's politics, some stating they would be voting for Julie, and they were not given the opportunity to have a conversation with Ben, in his own group, but he now wants to come into my group because those people are speaking out," Weldon said.

Arbon expressed support for Weldon.

"I give her a lot of credit for keeping a fair and balanced page in my view. I don't think the Wilsonville Community Page is that at all," she said.

Wilsonville City Council candidate Joann Linville hasn't had any problems with either pages but doesn't engage much with them anyway beyond adding her own Facebook posts to the sites.

"I don't think that medium is a positive and productive way for me to get the message of my campaign out. I don't see them as being an important resource for communicating with the community," Linville said. "Hopefully people are going to my Facebook page."

West felt that social media has become a mudpit where gossip and defamation proliferate. He also said that candidates like each other and can work well together despite what social media may indicate.

"We may have different viewpoints but at the end of the day let's be neighbors and treat everyone with human dignity," he said.

Johnson felt that misinformation is also an issue on Facebook sites. And Budiao recommended that people visit campaign websites, read the Spokesman or watch the Spokesman and Wilsonville Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum to become informed about candidates rather than rely on Facebook.

Ochs sometimes wonders if the page should revert back to its old format of not allowing politics, but said they only run into issues during election season. Overall, she said administering a page with thousands of members is a thankless and time-consuming job.

"I do it because I truly try to do my best to give a fair and balanced area for people to come together as a community," she said.

Johnson, meanwhile, suggested people engage with each other in person rather than arguing behind a computer screen.

"Social media isn't the only platform," she said. "(You get) the human element in person."


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