Misinformation, fake profiles causing real problems for Oro-Medonte

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Current council members, targeted citizen groups; Mayor Harry Hughes says door-to-door reality paints a different picture

If you take a look on social media, you might think that there is something terribly wrong going on in Oro-Medonte.

Various “people” from many political stripes have taken to social media, Facebook groups in particular, to spread and disseminate information – and misinformation – about current council members, local issues and each other from combative way.

On the one hand, citizens are frustrated with the township’s actions on a number of issues, some of which include ongoing concerns over short-term rentals and council’s decision to deny internet and telephone voting in upcoming municipal elections.

On the other side are Facebook users, a number of whom use fake profiles, who are actively working to subvert what they call “special interest groups” such as taxpayer associations and citizen groups. concerned with issues such as short-term rentals, with a prolific presence in various Facebook groups.

Both seem to support or attack different council members.

However, Oro-Medonte Mayor Harry Hughes maintains that all is generally well in the township.

“I’ve knocked on more than 1,000 doors so far in my campaign, and I’m going to walk through the whole township, no matter how big,” he said. “I can tell you that I have not met a single person who has not said how happy they were to live in Oro-Medonte.

“There’s about one percent of people who want to turn it up and make things look bad.”

While he said he was unfamiliar with fake Facebook profiles, Hughes attributed the township’s social media controversies to a small group of “political amateurs” who have been actively working to undermine the current council, and he says that a number of these people have used taxpayer associations, the OrilliaMatters letters to the editor section, or other citizen groups to disseminate derogatory information.

“It’s an election campaign that never stopped, and the same people are taking turns,” Hughes said.

He said the group was trying to gain control of the council in the upcoming election and was deliberately spreading misinformation with the aim of undermining the council before attempting to address ongoing issues.

“They have an underlying belief that anyone elected in politics must be corrupt. They reach out and talk about corruption when it doesn’t really exist,” he said. “The other thing is they want to project a myth, saying what the Oro-Medonte council needs now is just some fresh new faces – when you look at the fact that in the last election only, after the two (board members) who passed away, I was the only experienced person on the board.

According to Hughes, a number of these people began acting through established citizen groups or split into smaller groups to give the impression of a larger presence.

Another aspect of the problem is a group of residents affected by more than 20 apparently fake profiles operating in a wide range of Facebook groups over the past two years.

Some are profiles with hardly any posts, while others clearly use images from elsewhere.

Some of the profiles began to be posted in the group called “Simcoe Barrie Oro-Medonte Community Matters”, repeatedly accusing some council members of misogyny or racism, usually attacking Coun. Ian Veitch, as well as accusing ‘special interest groups’ of trying to manipulate the council.

In an open letter to Hughes, resident Diana Wells argued that the Facebook group interestingly harbors numerous defamatory and false allegations against the groups that Hughes has designated as problematic.

“This private Facebook group posts defamatory, false, harassing and hurtful comments about private and public individuals and groups,” she wrote. “I was quite disturbed by the numerous and targeted attacks against the inhabitants of the neighborhoodEnt groups and council members, in particular, vilifying Linda Myles, former president of the Horseshoe Valley Property Owners Association, and defaming current councilors, Veitch and (Randy) Greenlaw.

“Digging deeper, I discovered that the administrators of this site are hiding behind fabricated and invented Facebook profiles. These include Ella McDonald, Charlotte Tremblay, Amelia Martin, James Wilson, Anne Smith, Shelby CI and Rick Hamilton. Until recently, a certain Heide Mcd seemed to be the only ‘real’ director.”

One such person goes by the name of Nora Johnstone, who – according to Oro-Medonte resident Tim Taylor – uses photos of a woman living in Arkansas.

After finding the source of the photo, he contacted the woman in question, who was “furious” that her photos were being used elsewhere.

“In the original profile, there was a photo of a woman, and we discovered it was a photo from a dating site in Nairobi, Kenya,” Taylor said. “Now there was also a picture of a young girl fishing and…the caption was, basically, ‘So proud of my granddaughter.’ It’s not hard to follow these things, and… I personally called her and said, “Hey, there’s this photo that I think is from this other website.”

Operating behind fake profiles, Taylor said, the Facebook user group repeatedly posts inflammatory and biased information. Many are prolific writers, he said, with dozens of posts each.

Their reach extends far beyond Oro-Medonte, he said, and often targets the same people or organizations.

“(They) populate groups in Toronto, London, central Ontario, Muskoka. They are in Severn. They’re at Wasaga Beach. They are literally ubiquitous. If you look at the profiles, they are all empty. They are all fake,” he said. “They attack Con. Greenlaw regularly, Conn. Veitch exclusively, and then they go after those groups of taxpayers as well.

He has been following their activity for the past two years.

“When you look at a lot of these characters, there’s probably five or six that are very similar. They write the exact same thing over and over and over again,” Taylor said. I’m pretty sure they’re all the same people. I think it comes from the same place.

Taylor, a member of the Oro-Medonte Property Owners Association, said he himself had been the subject of numerous attacks.

“They’re chasing me as a guy who makes stuff up with research,” he said. “I’m doing research for a group that actually analyzes municipal data, so all of the data that I’ve gathered, I have primary source material. So I’m not making any extrapolation.

Likewise, the information put forward by fake profiles and so-called “interest groups”, whether entirely credible or not, is often backed up by real information.

Whether misleading or not, all parties involved seem to be basing their arguments on real information.

The fake profiles will often reference compiled video clips of Oro-Medonte council meetings, where ratepayers associations and citizen groups also present arguments grounded in available municipal information.

Sandra Jeppesen, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Lakehead University, stressed the importance of these groups’ arguments being grounded in verifiable information.

However, she also said fake news often contains an element of truth.

“I think they’re trying to do their due diligence, so I just wanted to give some credit for that,” she said. “I would say in any debate there is some falsehood on both sides and some exaggeration on both sides.”

She pointed to the COVID-19 example of rapid antigen tests, where their limitations — such as generally false-negative results — were often used as grounds for dismissing their effectiveness.

“The fact that it doesn’t work in a particular way that you thought was true, but to say it doesn’t work is a joke, isn’t true,” she said. OrilliaMatters. “It’s very nuanced, so the nuances between factual news and fake news can sometimes be quite subtle. Other times it’s just very obvious.

Jeppesen pointed to social media’s ability to create echo chambers, where people only encounter information they agree with, as well as social media’s propensity to generate outrage, as part of the reason why situations similar to Oro-Medonte are happening online.

“It reinforces their already existing opinions on something and they will seek out that medium, but they also don’t really have to look very far because their social media will replicate that for them,” she said. “They don’t get a diversity of opinions. They don’t get a large sample of news on one topic. They really see their own opinions reinforced.

“The angrier you are, the more likely you are to stay on social media, so algorithms actually generate anger.”

On a larger scale, Jeppesen pointed to the many crises that have occurred in recent times – from the 2008 financial crisis to COVID-19, the housing crisis, runaway inflation, etc., as more complex drivers of the indignation displayed in many places. on line.

“People are stretched to the limit in our daily lives. We lose the things that we have always relied on, to be able to pay rent, to be able to have housing, to even be able to pay for our groceries. We no longer have that 100 % in our society,” she said. “We can get angry more easily because we’re already under so much pressure in our daily lives.

Additionally, Jeppesen pointed to the anonymity offered by social media as a broad and relatively unenforceable problem.

“With digital media, people feel like they can say anything and everything and the problem, especially when it’s anonymous, is then there’s no accountability. It’s very difficult to track people down if there’s slander or libel or that sort of thing, or if they’re committing libel,” she said.

“If the police wanted to hunt down anyone who (posts) something defamatory on social media or in comments to the media, or even in letters to editors, I think that’s all they would do.”

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