What a Web he weaves: Lawmaker Jesse White disappoints with cowardly commenting

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There's nothing wrong with standing on the modern-day equivalent of a soap box and pronouncing a strong opinion, especially when the voice is that of an elected official on an important policy matter.

That's what state Rep. Jesse White, a Cecil Democrat, seemed to be doing when he posted criticism of Marcellus Shale gas drilling on the Internet using his own name. Given that natural gas fracking is a booming industry in his Washington County district, it even seemed to be a bold step for a politician.

But Mr. White turned his social media campaign on its head when he violated the rules of fair commentary by creating fictitious online personas and using them to speak out on issues and, worse, to attack real people who disagreed with him. So-called "trolls" who use phony identities have been particularly common on the topic of fracking, but it nonetheless was a foolish move on the part of a lawmaker.

His juvenile behavior hurt his own reputation, of course, and it has drawn the attention of prosecutors in both Washington and Dauphin counties, since he has a Western Pennsylvania office and one in Harrisburg. Mr. White made matters even worse by initially denying the accusations, made by KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan during a May 29 report, only to apologize for his actions later.

It appears that Mr. White used several screen names and was prolific in writing under those handles. Ironically, while writing under his own name, he complained about anonymous online writers "who would never have the guts to say such nonsense at a public meeting, but flourish in a coward's paradise provided by an Internet connection."

His critique of the perils of anonymous online commentary was well-taken; too bad he was talking about himself.

The Internet can provide the public, and public officials, with a remarkable opportunity for dialogue, a chance to share information and opinions in wide-ranging forums. (Full disclosure: The Post-Gazette's own website requires commenters to register using Facebook accounts, which helps to cut down on the use of false identities but is certainly not foolproof.) Such open exchanges have been a pillar of our democracy since the formation of our nation.

Modern-day politicians have used social media to reach out to their constituents and provide services at a rapid pace. Witness the success of Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who uses Twitter incessantly to inform citizens and elicit information from them.

Mr. White turned what could have been a positive, informative process into an embarrassment.

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