Doug Mastriano is deleting Facebook videos as he runs for Pa. governor

William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

In early April, Doug Mastriano was recording a Facebook Live video on his phone after a legislative session in Harrisburg when he segued into his thoughts on global warming.

The state senator from south-central Pennsylvania, who would become the Republican nominee for governor the following month, told his supporters he wanted to pull the state out of a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, calling it "nonsense" that human activity could significantly alter the earth's climate.

A connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming? Merely a "theory," Mastriano said, based on "pop science."

"Heck, the weatherman can't get the weather right 24 hours out," he said.

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As supporting evidence, Mastriano referred to an event he said he attended in Washington, D.C., in about 1970 when he was a Cub Scout. Environmentalists there had been warning that when the world's population reached one billion, he recalled, there would be a major catastrophe.

"That was the outrage and fear back then," Mastriano said. "There was no global catastrophe when we reached one billion. ... They talked about it like it was fact, like with climate change."

The anecdote, of course, makes little sense, not least because the world population at that time was already an estimated 3.7 billion.

The video has since disappeared from Mastriano's Facebook campaign page. In the last three months alone, more than a dozen other videos have also been deleted.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The removed videos include freewheeling discussions in which Mastriano predicts that this November's election will be marred by Democratic voter fraud; accuses Republicans who don't support him of looking down on veterans; and calls the fight against abortion "the most important issue of our lifetime."

This has become somewhat of a pattern for Mastriano, 58, a retired Army colonel who bills himself as a plainspoken populist. He communicates directly with voters online, yet sometimes covers his tracks.

Before this latest batch of deletions, Mastriano removed potentially problematic or controversial posts, including tweets promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, as well as videos in which he called local faith leaders "cowards"; acknowledged his COVID diagnosis while visiting the White House; and feuded with GOP lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Mastriano's Senate website has also been scrubbed of a plan he pitched during the early days of the pandemic to lift medical privacy restrictions so the government could disclose the names and locations of people infected with COVID-19.

Videos have been deleted from his official Senate Facebook page, as well.

"There are traces of them, but the videos are gone," said Erin Gallagher, a disinformation researcher at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Gallagher, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania, has been tracking Mastriano's intense social media activity since 2020 as an independent endeavor, unaffiliated with her university work.

She has watched his rapid political ascent — fueled at first by his opposition to coronavirus safety measures, then false claims about a stolen 2020 presidential election — jump from her computer screen to lawns in her part of the state, with Mastriano-for-governor signs sprouting up seemingly overnight. Early polling shows Mastriano running neck-and-neck with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

"He has a very personal approach to interacting with his fans and I feel that's really effective," Gallagher said.

In this May 3, 2018, photo, Doug Mastriano, one of eight Republicans running for the U.S. House in Pennsylvania's 13th District, speaks to a crowd of party faithful at the Southeastern Adams Volunteer Emergency Services social hall, in Hanover, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

But the fact that Mastriano or his campaign is now preemptively deleting newer posts — one Facebook Live video recorded three weeks ago is already gone — is puzzling even to those who've followed him closely.

Why are some videos removed but others not?

"I honestly don't know," Gallagher said.

The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a request for comment, and he routinely has shunned media interviews outside of friendly radio shows and podcasts.

Shannon McGregor, a senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, said it is possible that Mastriano is curating his social-media presence for the general election after a bruising primary with a large Republican field.

"Some of these things might not have been as problematic in a Republican primary as in the general election," McGregor said.

In recent weeks, for instance, Mastriano has been seeking to mend rifts within the GOP to boost his lagging fundraising, with mixed results: After the primary, he was spotted dining with Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, who had endorsed a rival. But two Republican PACs have already announced their plans to oppose Mastriano, calling him too extreme.

Two Facebook Live videos he recorded in April and May — both since deleted — would probably not further his goal of building new relationships with Republican leaders. In them, Mastriano repeatedly lashes out at a "corrupt" GOP establishment, and puts forth a novel theory: that Republicans in Pennsylvania were working against him in the primary because they hate veterans.

"That's the reason why I'm running, because of ... lying, deceitful people that lack integrity and honor like them," Mastriano said.

He urged his supporters to confront and correct his Republican detractors.

"They can talk about policies, but why do they have to attack me as a person and say the things they do? Because they have this disdain and hate for veterans," he said. "If they really respected veterans — they can disagree on policy, no problem. They can criticize me on policy. But when they make the attacks personal, call them out. Tell them, 'This personifies your disdain for veterans.'"

On abortion, Mastriano supports severe new restrictions with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the pregnant person, as well as criminal penalties for doctors and nurses who perform the procedure — a position that most Pennsylvania voters do not share. As a first step, he has introduced a "heartbeat bill," which would effectively ban abortion after about six weeks, before many know they are pregnant.

More recently, though, he has sought to some extent to pivot away from abortion and focus on economic issues.

Mastriano's gubernatorial campaign website no longer mentions abortion on the home page, where "protecting life" was previously listed first among his campaign priorities. And in a June radio interview that he recorded for Facebook — it was later deleted — he called abortion a "distraction" being pushed by his opponents.

"The Democrats and their friends in the traditional media, they want us to focus on this and now on the Roe v. Wade decision instead of dealing with life," Mastriano said. "And most people in this country are concerned about inflation, gas prices, food not on the shelves, baby formula, and just on and on. And so this is all a distraction."

A month earlier, in another video that he later deleted, Mastriano describes himself as "the most-pro-life guy out there" and reiterated his position that "life starts at conception."

"I'm all about following the science, and the science says, 'That's a baby in the womb.' What else could it be?" he asked. "Fetus is Latin for baby, by the way."

McGregor said Mastriano's tendency to delete videos makes it more difficult for potential voters to fully understand his positions on important issues. She said removing content from his government accounts is particularly problematic, because it is considered more of an official record.

"I think it's a transparency problem for the people of Pennsylvania," McGregor said. "Those things should be known to the voters, to the public."

Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican political consultant in Pennsylvania, said that, regardless of why Mastriano is removing content, he has to find a way to broaden his appeal before November, both the message and the medium. Many independents and moderate Democrats don't visit his Facebook account or listen to right-wing radio and podcasts.

"What's concerning to some people is that his voter outreach efforts are not evolving," Nicholas said. "In terms of Facebook conservatives, he and his team, congrats to them, they really maxed out that vote in the primary. That doesn't win you a general election. Now, you have to do something in addition to that."