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Both sides on casino referendum taking to Facebook, Twitter

Log on to Facebook or Twitter, and gambling referendum propaganda may pop up on your news feed.

Penn National Gaming Inc., the operator of Hollywood Casino Perryville, has spent $9.5 million on advertising to oppose the expansion of gambling in Maryland.

Arrive home from work to watch your favorite prime time television show, and you’re bound to watch at least one 30-second commercial bragging about the 4,000 jobs expanding Maryland’s casino program will create or, conversely, that new gambling revenue won’t necessarily go toward education.

Phone ringing? On the other end, it may be a robocall, letting you know which way you ought to vote on Question Seven — which asks if a Prince George’s County casino should be built and if table games such as roulette should be legalized — to be answered by voters on Nov. 6.

It doesn’t matter where you look: With $16.5 million already spent to influence the voter referendum through various forms of advertising, there’s no escape from the gambling question, which dominated the General Assembly from March through August.

Now, its citizens’ turn to be inundated.

Penn National Gaming Inc., the Pennsylvania-based gambling company that operates Hollywood Casino Perryville in Cecil County and another, larger and more lucrative casino in Charles Town, W.Va., well within the Maryland casino market, is the only company that has spent money opposing the state’s gambling expansion.

But they’ve spent $9.5 million, according to state campaign records — 58 percent of the combined total for both sides through Friday.

Penn’s ballot issue committee — Get the Facts-Vote No on 7 — is using the money to buy up prime television and radio slots and stay active on social media. They have a website, too, votenoon7.com.

Kevin McLaughlin, the committee’s spokesman, declined to comment on campaign strategy. Penn National set up the committee, in part, because it feels the company will not be given a fair shot to build a casino at Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington. National Harbor, near Oxon Hill, appears to be the preferred location for what would be the state’s sixth casino.

Kristen Hawn, spokeswoman for the pro-expansion group For Maryland Jobs and Schools Inc., said taking the message to social media is vital to the success of a ballot campaign. Three companies — MGM Resorts International Inc., the developer for a potential National Harbor casino; The Peterson Cos., master developer of National Harbor; and Caesars Entertainment Corp.-led CBAC Gaming LLC — have combined to chip in about $7 million to support the gambling referendum. Most of that money has gone toward television and radio ads.

But the social media platforms are cheap and effective, Hawn said.

“I think that, obviously, a social media campaign is something that’s important to making sure that we get our message out [and] disseminating on a grassroots level,” Hawn said. “We’re making sure people in Maryland have access to all the information that we have.”

Hawn said using Facebook and Twitter did more than just disseminate information, though; it allows for a dialogue between potential voters and the group — decidedly more interactive than a television or radio advertisement.

“Facebook is a great way to engage on the issue and for us to correct any misconceptions people have,” she said. “It’s good for the campaign to hear directly from people in Maryland. … Rather than just receiving the information, you can communicate directly with us, and we can provide answers and information about the effort.”

The instincts of Hawn and McLaughlin appear to be well tuned. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Internet and American Life Project found that use of social network websites sometimes influences individuals’ political opinions.

According to the report, 25 percent of social network users become more active in a political issue after discussing or learning about the issues on those websites. Only 9 percent of the 2,253 adults surveyed said they became less involved in a political issue after using social networking sites.

What’s more, 36 percent of those surveyed say social networks are “very important” or “somewhat important” to keeping them up-to-date with political news.

Between both sides of the casino campaign, the competition for social network eyeballs is a near dead heat. Opponents of expanded gambling had collected 2,244 followers through Facebook and Twitter accounts; proponents had 2,126, through Friday.

Weary may want to shun technology as the weeks march on, toward the Nov. 6 election.

But even if you do manage to get away from your computer, television and telephone, don’t expect to escape. MGM is setting up an information center on Waterfront Street in National Harbor — and physical signs promoting the gambling expansion aren’t far away.