Lies, manipulations, impersonations: ‘Dirty tricks’ on social media descend on local politics

In late September, Loreal Byrd, a moderator on the r/LongBeach subreddit began receiving complaints about some suspicious activity going on in the online debate forum.

Redditors, as the members of the platform are commonly referred to, had begun to notice an odd trend: negative or critical posts about a candidate for the city’s 2nd council district, Cindy Allen, were racking up a peculiar amount of “downvotes,” effectively pushing them out of sight on the popularity-based platform.

“You could clearly see when this vote manipulation was happening,” Byrd said, in this case referring to Reddit votes, rather than the ballot box. “I’m not too surprised, but it still irritates me.”

Quickly, Byrd and other redditors homed in on one particular anonymous user they suspected of organizing the downvotes. After trying, to no avail, to obtain information on the user’s real identity from Reddit, Byrd complained to state authorities. Even though she and other redditors have some clues—more on that later—she has yet to receive clear proof on who is behind it.

And she’s not alone.

Long Beach officials have been fielding complaints left and right this election season. Over the past two months, as voters were already casting their ballots, they have been inundated with a flurry of illicit election activity on social media and via text messages. As of now, there’s little hope of learning who the culprits are before Election Day.

Finding out who is behind a singular fake social media account is incredibly difficult, said Darren Linvill, who has researched and exposed networks of fake accounts operated by both domestic and foreign actors, such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

“While they may have a big impact locally, to attribute who is actually responsible for that account is exceedingly difficult from the other side of a computer screen,” Linvill explained.

In their entirety, the tactics used to influence local voters through technology are eerily reminiscent of those employed by foreign governments during the 2016 election and beyond, a trend that experts like Linvill have tracked on a bigger scale, experts say.

“A lot of domestic actors have mimicked what state actors do,” Linvill said.

In Long Beach, one such anonymous account has rippled across the political spectrum attacking, mocking and impersonating candidates and local activists.

On Facebook and Twitter, the anonymous account has shared disparaging posts and comments about both current candidates and sitting members of the City Council and other local political institutions.

For example, the account fired off several tweets alleging two public officials of Iranian descent, Sunny Zia and Suzie Price, were involved in illegal business practices, among other wrongdoings, calling them “Persian Princesses” and questioning their allegiance to the United States.

Switching regularly, the account has used the image of Long Beach Reform coalition co-founder Juan Ovalle, his brother Carlos Ovalle and, most recently, 2nd District City Council candidate Robert Fox. Meanwhile, the account has used the display name “El Chupacabra de Long Beach” on Twitter, alluding to a mythical creature rumored to suck the blood out of living animals.

The Long Beach Reform Coalition has asked social media companies, the FPPC and the local prosecutor’s office to track down the true identity of the person behind the account, but their plates are full as it is.

The office of City Prosecutor Doug Haubert is investigating this case, together with lewd phone messages sent to some elected officials and misleading text message campaigns targeting voters in the 8th District. He called the political charades “very disturbing and likely illegal.”

“It is apparent that someone is engaging in dirty tricks in connection with the November 3, 2020 election,” the prosecutor said.

Haubert said he could not comment on the timeline of his investigation, specifically whether it is likely any culprits will be found before the election.

Local candidates, activists and elected officials trying to take investigative matters into their own hands face an uphill battle, as they often have less pull with large social media companies than presidential campaigns and other candidates on the federal level.

“It’s much harder to actually stop that sort of thing at the local level,” Linvill, the misinformation expert, said.

On Reddit, users did voice their suspicions about who might have organized votes to hide negative articles about Allen, Fox’s opponent in the 2nd District race.

As lore has it—and it is spun quickly in the age of social media—some alleged Allen’s son, David Allen may be behind the attack. After posting information that was not known to the general public, some Redditors suggested that only the candidate’s son would have the information provided.

On the surface at least, their suspicion was quickly confirmed.

“I am in fact David Allen,” the anonymous poster wrote. “Thank you for doxing me,” he said, using a slang term for revealing someone’s private information online. He later repeated this claim in a series of private messages provided by Byrd. David Allen did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment on the matter.

Before deleting his posts, the redditor claiming to be David Allen didn’t mince words about his views on the ongoing competition for the District 2 seat. “This race is a cancer,” he wrote.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to note that Cindy Allen is a former owner of the Long Beach Post but has not had any involvement with the Post since she sold it in 2018.

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Alena Maschke writes about all things business and beyond for the Long Beach Business Journal/Long Beach Post. Born and raised in Germany, she first fell in love with California during an exchange year at UCLA. After receiving her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2017, she returned to the Golden State with an appetite for great stories, pupusas and the occasional Michelada.
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