Ben Chin, a 32-year-old Democrat, ran away with the preliminary vote in November for mayor of Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine. But he couldn’t avoid a runoff with City Councilor Shane Bouchard, a Republican backed by Governor Paul LePage.
Shortly after the November election, an anonymous conservative website called the Maine Examiner began hammering Chin as a smug, leftist outsider in a long-struggling city where many residents had resisted an influx of Somali immigrants.
“Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters ‘Bunch of Racists,’ ” the secretive site posted on Dec. 3, kicking off a barrage of negative stories.
That quote was taken out of context. But nine days later, he lost the runoff by 145 votes — a narrow defeat he and his supporters blame in part on the website’s attacks, many of which were quickly recirculated on Facebook by the state Republican Party.
Fake news — misleading stories that have mushroomed in the age of social media and that became Internet fodder during the 2016 presidential election — had found a way into Maine politics, Chin’s supporters said. Of even more concern to some Democrats: It appeared that the GOP was working directly with the site.
“The stories just created so much confusion,” Chin said in an interview. “You had people believing things that were exactly the opposite of the truth.”
The posts also have alarmed state Democrats and media observers, who fear that this type of hyperpartisan, anonymous reporting could be a test run for the 2018 governor’s race.
“It’s very, very troubling,” said Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “There is no real accountability. The average voter and consumer of social media does not immediately recognize that it is fabricated information.”
The state Republican Party declined to comment on whether it coordinated with the Examiner but sharing the site’s stories greatly increased their visibility.
Garrett Murch, the state GOP’s spokesman and political director, also declined a phone interview to discuss the Examiner’s influence. Murch, who joined the state GOP staff in July, worked for five years as a communications adviser for Jeff Sessions when the US attorney general was a Republican senator from Alabama.
But in an e-mail, Murch conceded that the site has made a difference.
“I don’t really have much to say,” Murch wrote. “I guess I can give you this: ‘Their stories seem to have often checked out and had some measure of impact.’ ”
Chin easily outpolled Bouchard in the five-candidate preliminary election, 42 percent to 29 percent. But in a smaller field, Bouchard consolidated support.
The Examiner drew only scant attention after it began posting on Facebook in September — just three likes and five shares until Nov. 9.
But when the state Republican Party posted an Examiner story that day on the potential perils of Medicaid expansion, the website suddenly became noticed. The GOP post on Facebook was shared 58 times. After that, the GOP began to repost the Examiner regularly, including its attacks on Chin.
The state party’s executive director, Jason Savage, also puts Examiner stories on his personal Facebook page, sometimes shortly after the original post. Savage could not be reached for comment.
The Examiner has been cloaked in anonymity. Nearly all of its articles carry a byline of “administrator,” and its ownership is not divulged in the registry of Internet addresses. A Globe request for comment was answered with a brief, anonymous e-mail.
“We are not interested in interviews at this time,” it read. “Thank you.”
The Examiner’s campaign against Chin, a Bates College graduate, began Nov. 28 when it posted a story — picked up from a national right-wing site, The Daily Caller — that accused Chin’s campaign of retaining a convicted pedophile as a volunteer. Chin said that the man had been known as a Lewiston activist but that he did not participate in the campaign and had been asked not to attend any campaign events.
Its Dec. 3 post reported that Chin had complained to his staff “that voters in Lewiston’s Ward 6 are racists,” citing a leaked campaign e-mail. Read in its entirety, the e-mail indicates that Chin was not referring to Ward 6 as a whole.
Chin wrote that on June 15 he knocked on 64 doors and had 47 conversations with prospective voters, 32 of whom were strong supporters or leaning toward him. He also mentioned speaking with two African-American families, one potential volunteer whose sister died of an overdose, and a woman who had supported the lame-duck Republican mayor “but is coming our way.”
At the end of the summary, he wrote, “bunch of racists, too.’
Four days later, the Examiner cited “multiple sources” in reporting that Chin’s car had been towed because of “years of unpaid parking tickets.” However, police told the Lewiston Sun Journal that the car had been towed but that the tickets dated only to September.
One constant in the Examiner’s reporting is that the target of the story is not given a chance to comment.
Anonymity and mystery also extend to Maine First Media, another right-wing website that was created a year ago.
Matthew McDonald, a Bangor resident who founded the site, sold Maine First in November but would not divulge its new owners, except to say that they have connections with Nebraska and Maine.
“The people that bought it would prefer not to talk about that,” McDonald said.
On Jan. 4, Maine First Media posted a story that read, “EXPOSED: Open-Border Leftists Plot to Invade Rural Maine with Muslim Refugees.” On Jan. 3, another Maine First story carried the headline: “Mainers Paying the Price for Mass Immigration, Refugee Racket Expansion.”
Trained as a clergyman, McDonald said that anonymity allows Maine First the freedom of uninhibited expression by unpaid writers who don’t use bylines. When he served as editor, he largely concerned himself with grammar and punctuation, he said.
“I didn’t care what they were writing about. My concern was never the story, per se,” but rather “just make sure where to put your semicolon,” McDonald said. “It’s kind of new media, right? We really just opened up the box and let people glow.”
The purpose, he said, was to credit the achievements of President Trump and his America First agenda. “I just couldn’t find a fair and balanced media source,” McDonald said.
The sites are clearly affecting state politics, but they lack any traditional sense of accountability, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
“When you have an anonymous website, who knows who’s bankrolling it?” Brewer said. “I think all Mainers not only should know but deserve to know. They can publish whatever they want, but it would be helpful to know who’s paying for the information.”
Brewer’s concerns were echoed by Judith Rosenbaum, a University of Maine communications professor who specializes in social media. Hearing new voices is important, she said, but such a platform comes with responsibility.
“My biggest concern is: Do we have a citizenry that is able to discern credible news from news that is really rumors and gossip?” Rosenbaum said.
State Senator Justin Chenette, a Democrat from Saco who has been targeted by the Examiner, said he may request a state ethics inquiry into whether the Maine Republican Party has collaborated with the Examiner.
“Hey, let’s put the cards on the table. Is the state GOP secretly funding this site?” Chenette said. “There’s clearly a connection. Why are they sharing these fake news articles?”
Chenette accused the website of recklessly suggesting Dec. 21 that he had received commissions from personal campaign ads, paid with taxpayer funds, that he placed in the newspaper where he works as an advertising representative.
The Examiner wrote that its reporting raises “questions about Chenette’s use of taxpayer money for his campaign and the possibility of unethical personal benefits Chenette may have received.”
Chenette denied being paid commissions by the Biddeford Journal Tribune, the only daily newspaper based in York County, which Chenette represents.
“This is basically a glorified right-wing conspiracy blog that is disguised and masked as a news site,” said Chenette, who added that anonymity could allow the owners of such sites to skirt campaign finance laws. “So far, it looks like its sole purpose is slandering progressive Democrats like me.”
McDonald, the Maine First Media creator, said the site has a different purpose.
“There was no media platform for people who are looking for a story that puts President Trump in a positive instead of a negative light,” McDonald said. “We built something that changed the culture of media in Maine, and we did it in ways that were outside the box.”
In the end, he added, “people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds about a story.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.