'Shady' social media practices change local politics
Oct. 28, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.
Updated Oct. 30, 2017 at 6 a.m.
When an outsider challenged the incumbent for Victoria County judge in 2010, the courthouse downtown was abuzz with rumors about who could be behind anonymous comments posted to the Victoria Advocate's website.
The comments asserted incumbent Don Pozzi would be the far better choice.
"Based upon what was being said, sometimes you may have thought you had it figured out," Pozzi recalled.
Since that election, local politicians have followed national politicians' lead by using social media as an inexpensive and effective way to campaign. But Facebook has a dark side, allowing users to disguise their true identities to lodge attacks without accountability against opposing candidates and spread misinformation rapidly.
Chris Compton, a shareholder in Aloe Software Group with Victoria Mayor Paul Polasek and Joel Sager, said the trio started commenting anonymously in a concerted way on the Victoria Advocate's website when Matt Ocker challenged Pozzi in 2010.
Their goal, Compton said, was to provoke Ocker into acting online the way they said he did in real life, which they thought showed him to be unfit to serve as county judge. Compton said he used the account name of "Lamppost" and felt badly when some wrongly attributed his comments to Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns.
However, the commenting didn't end there, Compton said. As Facebook's popularity grew, the three businessmen created bogus Facebook accounts to attack opponents and promote certain city issues.
The mayor, however, denies any involvement in commenting anonymously or creating fake Facebook accounts. He characterized Compton as a disgruntled former employee.
Pozzi never learned who was commenting anonymously on his behalf, but he didn't hesitate to offer his opinion of public officials who set up bogus accounts to comment without consequence.
"I think that's unethical. I certainly would never do it, and I wouldn't have much respect for someone who does, quite frankly," he said.
The commenting continues
After Pozzi beat Ocker in 2010, Compton said he lost interest in commenting anonymously, but he said Polasek, then a City Council member, continued commenting.
In 2012, the Victoria Advocate began requiring readers to log into their Facebook account to comment on its stories online.
At that point, Compton said, Polasek set up at least two bogus accounts. One was Linda Sanchez, a 73-year-old Hispanic woman; the other was David McSpade, a 57-year-old oil field worker. The accounts posted a variety of attacks on others while, in many instances, supporting the mayor's agenda.
Compton said the mayor's intentions in using the bogus accounts were clear: "Whenever y'all would come out with a news story that he saw as painting the city in a bad light or some of the decisions the City Council made in a bad light, then he would take that opportunity to come out and try to downplay what he thought was the seriousness of it."
Polasek denied owning or using the Linda Sanchez or David McSpade accounts. Instead, he said, he was aware Compton and Sager had used aliases to comment on stories related to the city.
He said he was aware of that because the anonymous commenters seemed to know what to say to provoke him and the people he works with often overheard him talk about city business.
"Back then, it was pretty nasty, like, 'Oh, they're all just a bunch of thieves downtown.' Things like that. No one would appreciate that being blogged about them, right?" Polasek said.
Later in his interview with the Victoria Advocate, Polasek called Sager into his office to answer questions about the bogus accounts.
Sager also denied knowing anything about the Linda Sanchez and David McSpade accounts.
The day after the interview, Sager sent an email to the Victoria Advocate claiming he created the bogus accounts, as well as the Victoria Guardian, a Facebook page that initially posted political content anonymously.
"The FB accounts mentioned were mostly used for silly fun. There is often, as expected, a lot of 'water cooler' talk around the office. Since Paul is mayor, I (we) often hear more details and his gripes than the average person, since we all work so closely together. Often I used some of this information to 'troll' others," Sager wrote.
Sager said Compton was trying to hurt him for personal reasons and that Polasek did not know about his or Compton's actions.
"It is no surprise he would do the same to Paul," Sager wrote of Compton. "He is very intelligent and very cunning. We want nothing to do with him. We are currently considering legal action against him."
Sager did not respond to requests for another interview to explain why he changed his answer about the two Facebook accounts.
Also the day after the interview with Polasek and Sager, Facebook officials confirmed the suspicious nature of the Linda Sanchez and David McSpade accounts and suspended them.
"The pages in question are suspected of violating our community standards and remain unavailable while we investigate," a Facebook spokesman said. "If they are in fact found to violate, they will be removed."
Partnership forms, fizzles
Compton said he was fired earlier this year from Aloe Software Group because of his poor attendance, which he attributed to a divorce, now on hold, and related depression. Compton remains a shareholder.
He founded the company with Sager in 2004.
In 2008, he and Sager asked Polasek, who was then working for Region III Education Service Center, to join them, thinking Polasek's state contacts could grow their company.
Since then, the company has made a profit every year; its success is not tied to the mayor's political career, Compton said.
Although Compton said he was initially angry about the firing, he said he now sees it was justified. He said he was coming forward about the bogus online commenting to clear his conscience.
He said he was speaking out even though he could be hurt financially as Polasek and Sager could vote to not distribute the dividends from the company. Compton and his wife have four children ages 4 through 17.
"I'm going to get a little personal here," Compton said, "but I have been in therapy for three years, and one of the things that I've discovered is these kinds of activities, being dishonest and passive aggressively trying to alter things to my advantage are what made me such a passive-aggressive, angry person, and I don't want to be that way anymore."
Polasek and Sager confirmed Compton's firing but said there were more reasons for the firing than poor attendance. They would not elaborate.
"It was not an amicable separation. It was difficult for us," Polasek said.
Support for whistleblower
An anonymous source close to the company supported Compton's version of events. This person said they overheard Polasek, Sager and Compton talking about how they had made alias accounts to comment on websites.
The Advocate granted anonymity at the source's request.
The source has known Compton for years and admired the integrity and work ethic Compton displayed even when going through some difficult personal issues.
"I've always found him to be a pretty straightforward guy," the source said of Compton.
David Thamm, a former Aloe Software Group employee, said he agreed with that source's description of Compton and remembered overhearing Compton, Polasek and Sager talk about commenting on the Victoria Advocate's website.
Thamm was a field technician for the company before he left in 2009 to accept a job as the information technology director for Bloomington ISD. He left before Compton said Facebook accounts were created.
Compton said he was complicit in the anonymous commenting until the Victoria Guardian Facebook page launched Jan. 23, 2015. Then, the page shared footage of then-Victoria Police Officer Jason Stover's stopping Courtney Bosier and her mother on their way home.
Bosier, then a part-time copy editor at the Victoria Advocate, had written a column that was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day about how she felt she had been racially profiled. However, the footage from Stover's dashboard camera showed he did not raise his voice or ticket her.
With tension between minorities and the police rising across the country, Compton said he wanted Polasek to use the traffic stop as a way to bring the community together, not tear it apart. Compton said he also was bothered that Polasek went after Bosier because her brother, Carl, had worked for Aloe Software Group until he died of a heart attack in 2014.
Compton recalled Polasek was outraged by what he perceived as Bosier's misrepresentation of the traffic stop and the Advocate's lax editing. Compton recalled Polasek calling employees into his office to view the footage and instructing his longtime friend and campaign treasurer, David Coffey, on how to obtain the footage from the city by filing an open records request.
The city of Victoria confirmed Coffey requested it the day before the Guardian posted it.
Compton also provided a recording he made of Polasek talking about the launch of the Guardian, which was anonymous during its first year of existence.
On the recording, Polasek can be heard telling Compton that if he commented on the Guardian, he would do so as himself to make it legitimate. Compton said Polasek made this remark to distinguish his handling of comments on this page from the ones he was making elsewhere using bogus Facebook accounts.
In the interview with the Advocate, Polasek said it was important to Coffey that people view the footage, but it was not to him. He said he was not involved in the Guardian.
"When these types of events would occur," Compton said of the mayor, "he would come in and have a platform to - I don't want to say work out his frustration - but to say things that were really on his mind but not accept any responsibility for it."
The Guardian didn't stay out of the political fray for long, either.
March 26, 2016, media consultant Ward Wyatt published a video on the Guardian showing Councilman Emett Alvarez did not live in his district after he said he received information about the municipal code violation from Coffey.
County Commissioner Gary Burns had hired Wyatt a month before to run his re-election campaign. Wyatt said Coffey and Sager made Wyatt the sole administrator of the Guardian so he could share Burns' message with more Victorians.
Wyatt, who moved back to Victoria from Austin in 2016, said he didn't know about the origins of the Guardian until recently. Even though the footage of the traffic stop between Bosier and Stover remains the Guardian's featured video, he said he had never watched the entire clip.
Polasek said Coffey was concerned about Alvarez's infraction because he was a constituent. However, the mayor said, he did not help Coffey obtain the information.
Coffey declined requests for an interview.
"I had no confirmation of it, and I told David that at that time council was very harmonious, and I didn't want to disrupt the harmony we had," Polasek said.
But Alvarez said he and the mayor had a strained relationship, especially after he was among four council members who questioned Polasek's legitimacy as mayor.
The four questioned why no runoff election would occur after former Mayor Will Armstrong, the No. 2 vote-getter in the 2013 mayoral election, withdrew and no one earned more than 50 percent of the vote.
Alvarez said the video posted to the page contained a photograph of his former home with overgrown grass. Alvarez said he thought that photo was taken by the city's code enforcement department and not something Coffey or Wyatt would have known to request without the mayor's insight.
The city's code enforcement department has a photo similar to the one in the video on the Guardian. Both photos were taken about the same time.
Also, Alvarez said he thought the Linda Sanchez account had knowledge of and expressed opinions the mayor held.
For example, the Linda Sanchez account addressed a resident Alvarez remembered the mayor getting into a loud altercation with after a City Council meeting.
Alvarez said he thought it was OK to attack a political opponent but only openly.
"That's why you have all these disclosures on the radio, on TV and on print stuff. When you omit that aspect of it, as a candidate or an elected official, that's unethical. You're crossing, potentially crossing, a line," Alvarez said.
Media consultant Wyatt said he considered the mayor a friend who handles stress well and cares deeply for the city.
Wyatt also said Coffey and Sager told him they had bogus Facebook accounts after the Advocate began investigating this story.
"I'm sure the mayor knew that the Facebook accounts existed. I would be highly surprised if he did not," Wyatt said.
However, Wyatt said, Coffey and Sager did not do anything wrong.
"Now, you want to call it shady, you want to call it hiding behind an account, sure, I'll say that. Absolutely. Own your comments. That's my message to everyone out there," Wyatt said.
Ethics and effects
It is unethical for public officials to use bogus Facebook accounts, mostly because their constituents deserve to know what they stand for, communications experts say.
"There's plenty of public officials who have gotten into trouble because of the comments they make on social media, so I can understand why he may not want to attach his name," said Kathleen McElroy, the associate director of the University of Texas School of Journalism. "But I don't think that's the way we want our public officials to behave, especially if it's in regard to commenting on other businesses or institutions in the community."
Using bogus Facebook accounts is a way to control the conversation, said Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor at the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College in Boston.
Raynauld said people judge the value of the content they share by the identity of the producer of that content.
"If I trust my friend, I trust that he would not share something that was not true, that was a lie," Raynauld said.
False stories can gain traction if they originate from bogus Facebook profiles that appear real and hold themselves out as belonging to someone in the community or in a profession of public trust, like a doctor or a lawyer, he said.
Both bogus accounts the mayor is accused of running had dozens of friends and purported to belong to a demographic or work in a job common in the Crossroads.
Misinformation was spread on social media during the last presidential election, Raynauld said, but can be more potent at the local level "because only one person entering the conversation and trying to sway it in a specific way can have a bigger impact."
No laws broken
Election laws do not address a public official's use of bogus Facebook accounts.
For example, the Texas Ethics Commission can penalize a candidate for misrepresenting himself online, but only in political advertising during a campaign, said Ian Steusloff, a member of its general counsel.
But the Texas Ethics Commission is strapped for resources, said Carol Birch, a retired administrative law judge who heard and issued opinions on complaints not related to the Texas Ethics Commission.
Because the Texas Ethics Commission lacks resources, "some pretty serious ethics violations get a tiny penalty like a $300 fine" or they are pending for years, she said.
Birch, who now works as the legislative counsel for Public Citizen Texas, added that even the standards of conduct, which could cover the use of social media, are not mandatory for those in statewide offices.
"In my opinion, leadership starts at the top," she said. "If you can't get the statewide officials to self-govern in a transparent and accountable way, it's harder to expect local governments to do any better."
Facebook's growing influence
Pozzi said a lot has changed since his race for re-election as county judge in 2010.
Then, "I didn't know what Facebook was, quite frankly," he said.
Today, local candidates join 1.3 billion people who use Facebook every day.
Ben Zeller, who uses the platform frequently, beat Pozzi for Victoria County judge in the March 2014 Republican primary.
In early 2016, Burns, first elected as county commissioner in 2004, hired media consultant Wyatt to run his first campaign to include social media.
"I realized how effective that was, I think, for our county judge, and I didn't know where to start," Burns said.
As part of that campaign, Wyatt posted to the Guardian page a video of Burns' opponent admitting she was inexperienced. Burns won re-election handily in March 2016.
Burns then recommended Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor hire Wyatt, too.
The local controversy comes at a time when Facebook is publicly reckoning with its influence in elections worldwide.
Facebook found from June 2015 to May 2017, hundreds of fake accounts bought $100,000 worth of advertisements that appeared bent on dividing U.S. citizens across the political spectrum.
Facebook found the accounts were linked to Russia and were seen by more than 10 million people in the U.S. It is now cooperating with a congressional investigation on the matter, and Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said the company will begin requiring ads to state who paid for them and expand its partnerships with election commissions, among other steps.
"Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're going to catch all bad content in our system," Zuckerberg said.
That appeared true when last month, Propublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization acting on a tip, bought ads that a Facebook algorithm allowed to target accounts that had listed "Jew Hater," "How to burn jews," and "history of why jews ruin the world" as interests.
War on traditional media
Ward Wyatt, whose mother was the Victoria County Republican Party chairwoman for 10 years and whose father is a former state representative and U.S. congressman for the area, moved back to Victoria in July 2016 to serve as media consultant for the sheriff. Wyatt is now working for Constance Filley Johnson, who announced her candidacy for Victoria County district attorney, and for a Victoria committee seeking to get a $141.2 million school bond passed.
Wyatt lamented how social media has played a part in further polarizing the country, but he said it also provides a valuable service. He moved to Victoria to offer his social media expertise at a time when more politicians are using it.
One of the reasons politicians use it is to quickly correct printed inaccuracies and to develop audiences that rival those of traditional media, Wyatt said.
The result is people are learning to trust social media more than traditional news sources, he said. The change reminds him of the Vietnam War, when people lost trust in government.
"At this point," Wyatt said, "it's kind of like, I want to say, the Vietnam of the news era, where people do not trust news media."