LEWISTON — On one hand, Heidi Sawyer said, the Lewiston Rocks the Vote group on Facebook helped generate a good deal of interest in local issues for this November’s election.

On the other hand, it’s exhausting.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I could spend all day moderating the page, but I’m not getting paid for it. It’s hard from a moderator’s standpoint, because I want everybody to be kind, but when they’re not, what do you do?”

All Sawyer did was create a Facebook group.

“If anything, it got people to pay attention,” she said. “I don’t think it really influenced how they voted, but I do think it got them to pay attention to the process and to vote.”

This was the year when social media really came into its own in Lewiston and Auburn’s local political races. Just about every candidate had a Facebook page for his or her campaign and many used their campaign finances to buy advertisements on the social media site, targeting local voters.

Sawyer, who works in marketing, said she understands why a candidate would do that.

“They get all the analytics, all this real-time data about who liked it, who shared it and how many people have seen it,” Sawyer said. “You get this data that can tell you whether or not it’s working. Plus, you get to control the message.”

Sawyer said she didn’t have any political ideas in mind when she created the Rocks the Vote page. A self-described independent, she just wanted to give people a place to talk politics.

“We wanted to open the conversation,” Sawyer said. “That’s what started it. We wanted to have a place where everybody could go to have a community dialogue about the elections. They could get access to most of the candidates, anybody who was on Facebook, and build relationships that way.”

She started the page in late September and it’s grown to more than 400 steady members, with strict rules. Candidates have been limited to three promotional posts per week, reserving most of the space for residents to ask questions. Group members responded, asking about mayoral and City Council candidate strategies for economic development and improving housing, and School Committee candidates’ opinions on classroom crowding and after-school programs.

The forum has stayed nonpartisan, attracting posts, questions and comments from both the right and the left.

“It was just a rare opportunity to give anybody in the community a chance to connect with the candidates and with anybody they feel is important and have that conversation,” Sawyer said.

It’s become such a part of the political community that Sawyer and three other members are hosting and moderating Thursday’s mayoral runoff debate, between incumbent Robert Macdonald and challenger Ben Chin.

The debate is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in the City Council chambers of Lewiston City Hall. It will be shown live on Great Falls TV and on Great Falls TV online, www.greatfallstv.net.

Sawyer said she’s learned a lot about local politics, namely how mean it can be. She’s had to step in as moderator and remove some posts that were unfair or didn’t match the spirit of the group: people insulting each other, for example, or making unfair or unsupported statements about a candidate’s views.

“I think there were private conversations going on behind the scenes, not posted publicly, and those were referred to on the page,” she said. “So much gets lost in translation and misinterpreted and that creates hurt feelings.”

Those decisions inspired a second, smaller Facebook group, Lewiston Maine Voters Speak! UNCENSORED, started by Beth Wing.

“I see Facebook, and social media in general, as another tool,” she said. “You know, it’s great to have your personal Facebook page where you can go and post your pictures and communicate with family and friends and that’s all great. But when it comes to politics, it’s a real tool. You can really network.”

Sawyer remains involved on her page and has joined the Uncensored page, as well. Wing, who describes her politics as liberal, said she’s managed to create a good working relationship with many of the conservative members.

“We totally get along on Uncensored,” she said. “I would say that’s one of the biggest successes out of it, that we’ve been able to find common ground.”

The biggest question for candidates in the future may be whether it worked. Sawyer said she’s not sure any opinions were changed by posts, but she hopes it led to more voter turnout.

“We all circulate in our own little bubbles,” she said. “But in this, my bubble has now expanded. I know people I never would have known before, if not for this social experiment — or whatever you want to call it.”

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