By BETTY IRELAND

We live today in the age of the "information highway," a phrase which just a few short years ago would have been greeted with a blank stare from most individuals.

The Internet has transformed our lives more rapidly than anything since the advent of electricity. For the most part, the developments have been positive. Communication is easier and faster than ever, and information which previously required hours or days of research at a library is now available at the click of a button.

The Internet is also having an effect on political campaigns, although its ultimate usefulness in that arena is still a matter of debate. For most candidates other than those running for president, visits to candidate websites are relatively low, and online fundraising has generally not yielded impressive results for anyone except the presidential candidate, or national groups targeting certain statewide positions. And yet, almost all candidates are expected to create and maintain websites containing issue statements, biographical information and, yes, online donation features. A candidate without a website is considered behind the times.

More and more candidates and officeholders have also begun offering political commentary on "blogs," terminology which is short for "web logs." These online diaries are increasingly prevalent, and most contain a means by which readers can offer responses or thoughts of their own to the opinions posted by the authors. In some cases, all across the country, we have seen running feuds erupt on these blogs, as candidates or their supporters answer charges or allegations made by their detractors.

Should candidates respond to charges made against them by bloggers? It's an interesting question, and my own discussions with candidates and officeholders of both parties bring about varying responses.

For my part, I believe candidates should not generally respond to allegations or insults leveled at them by bloggers. While the Internet has truly made freedom of speech a democratic ideal open to everyone with access to a computer, it also has a tendency to devalue information. Can we trust what we read on the Internet? Only the most careless individual would accept opinions, facts or statistics provided on blogs without verifying them through traditional, trusted sources.

Most blogs allow individuals to respond anonymously, using false Internet names. While the ability to hide one's identity when expressing an opinion might be attractive to many people, it in fact devalues the opinion itself. Statements made by individuals willing to clearly identify themselves carry much more weight than something said anonymously. Candidates should avoid the temptation to conceal their identity and respond under the cover of phony names or "handles." If you are a candidate or an officeholder, be confident in what you believe and in your own position and identity, and be proud to state your case under your own name.

But what candidates in particular must remember is that when they choose to respond to a blog, they immediately endow the blog author with credibility that might otherwise not exist. To most readers, the fact that a statement or opinion has elicited a quick or angry response from a candidate indicates that there might in fact be some truth or substance to the allegation.

Further, a response from a candidate will almost certainly bring about another response from the blogger, and on and on it goes. Suddenly, a statement or claim that might otherwise have vanished as quickly as it appeared takes on a life of its own because the candidate chose to engage.

There are times when responding to a statement made by a blogger is unavoidable, particularly when the issue is picked up and reported by the mainstream media. But generally, the best response to about 90 percent of what appears online is no response at all.

Ireland is West Virginia Secretary of State.

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