Dec. 3—Back in August 2018, the folks behind Facebook removed hundreds of pages, groups and accounts after realizing people in Iran and Russia had created them in a coordinated effort to influence American politics.
It's not just happening on the national front, however. Just this week alone, someone created a fake Odessa Police Department Facebook page and a fake Odessa American page. Both real accounts have been verified by Facebook and have a blue check mark indicating so.
In one instance, the fake OPD poster announced 911 was unavailable and urged people to call the Ector County Sheriff's Office, stating "They ain't doing nothing anyways." The fake OA poster appeared in one post to be attacking either the Downtown Odessa group or OPD.
Two other fake accounts devoted to local politics have attracted dozens of followers. One, using the profile photo of a dead man from North Carolina, had 158 "friends" as of Friday, including five Odessa City Council members, two Ector County commissioners and two judges.
When announcing their decision to remove the pages and to continue doing so, Meta stated: "We ban this kind of behavior because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook."
Vargas and Lane
Here locally, however, there appears to be a real split between those who agree there's an issue with fake profiles and those who take no issue with it.
Those opposed to the fake profiles worry they may be used to spread disinformation and think they're just unethical. The other side contend the profiles enable people to get their side of the issue out there and it's up to Facebook followers to do their own research to discern what is the truth and what isn't.
They've also pointed out Odessans for Ethical Leadership, whose spokesperson is former Odessa City Councilman Dewey Bryant, posts anonymously.
Both of the fake profiles, Finnegan Lane and Josiah Vargas, are staunch supporters of Mayor Javier Joven, At-Large City Councilwoman Denise Swanner and District 1 Councilman Mark Matta.
They've spoken out in favor of the recent efforts by the three to pass raises for Odessa Fire Rescue employees and have taken to task Council member Steve Thompson and outgoing council members Tom Sprawls, Mari Willis and Detra White for voting against the raises. (All four have said they were voting no because they prefer to wait until a compensation study for all city employees has been completed.)
Lane and Vargas have complained bitterly about the outgoing council members voting in favor of certificates of obligation and praised Joven for recently asking Medical Center Hospital to repay a $3 million loan 22 months early. Lane, whose profile picture is that of the deceased man, accused nearly a dozen people in a recent post of "passing contracts between each other, pulling tax payer dollars off the top."
Both Lane and Vargas have celebrated the replacement of Sprawls and Willis with Greg Connell and Chris Hanie, who are perceived to be aligned with Joven, Swanner and Matta. Vargas posted photos of Connell and Hanie with Swanner, Joven and Matta after they were sworn in. He praised their 5-1 vote to create an abortion ban in Odessa. New council member Gilbert Vasquez abstained. Thompson opposed it.
"I, for one, am glad to see the END of this reign of tyranny and the beginning of an era of transparency," Lane wrote under an OEL post recently.
Vargas, who has used a stock Getty image as his profile picture, also appears to be interested in the Ector County Utility District. When Ector County District Court Judge John Shrode ruled in October that ECUD's elections could continue, Vargas enquired, "Holy hell, was this judge paid off? The law was pretty dang clear. Looks like the swamp continues to play their tricks."
There exists at least one other anonymous Facebook profile that espoused less than favorable opinions on Joven on at least one occasion. Odessa Whistleblowers asked the OA under one of its Facebook posts why the OA hadn't asked about a trip Joven took to Mexico at taxpaper expense. The person behind the profile also made salacious claims about Joven and Matta that were deleted. The OA did write about Joven's trip and it doesn't appear as though Odessa Whistleblowers have posted anything since. The page's profile picture is that of Dana Carvey as Saturday Night Live's The Church Lady.
Lane is a "friend" of Odessa Whistleblowers.
Matt Coday, who created the nonprofit trade group Oil and Gas Workers Association seven years ago, condemned the fake profiles during a recent city council meeting. Then and again during a recent interview, Coday blasted the creator or creators for what he sees as hypocrisy.
"I think it's a coward's way of trying to say what you want to say without it being attributed to you," Coday said. "If they were really interested in truth, integrity, honesty and transparency they would just make the same statements from their personal accounts. I think it's cowardice."
Coday was particularly upset because Swanner thanked Vargas for picking up her lunch tab and later tagging Odessa Development Corporation board member Jeff Russell to say, "Today was the first time I met him! He picked up my tab at Mi Casa."
Russell himself posted "Josiah Vargas is one of the best guys I know!"
Swanner and Matta said social media just happens to be the way people get their news nowadays and fake profiles are just a fact of life.
"I have over 2,000 friends on Facebook. I don't research are they fake, are they real? Who has the time to even put their time and effort into seeing if that account is real or fake?" Swanner said.
Swanner described Coday as a "loose cannon" who has attacked several other elected officials in town and whose opinion doesn't matter to her. She said he probably has fake accounts himself.
"I do hope that he hasn't fallen off his program because he was a recovering alcoholic. He lets everybody know that he's been recovered," Swanner said.
As for Vargas?
"He did pay for my lunch. I never saw him. I did make a quote, 'Ya'll today was the first day I met him,' which I guess I shouldn't have said that because I didn't actually meet him. But I was at a restaurant, not that it's anybody's business because people pick up my lunch everyday so it's irrelevant," Swanner said.
Swanner also expressed surprise the OA thought the issue important enough to write about.
"What's amazing to me is y'all are willing to do a story on fake stuff when you won't report on stuff that happened," Swanner said. "Social media has been around for many years and people on social media say what they really feel because they don't feel that they can say it without being retaliated on."
She declined to identify any issues or stories the OA hasn't written about.
Matta said he thought it was "absolutely stupid" Coday "wasted" the council's time by bringing up the fake profiles.
"I have maybe 3,000 friends on Facebook. I guess I can go and question every single one of those friends, but I think it's absolutely silly that the Odessa American, our newspaper in town, is actually doing a story on fake profiles. I mean that just kind of speaks volumes in itself. There's other important issues that can be discussed and that can be covered," Matta said.
The Vargas and Lane pages poked fun at Coday following the council meeting calling him a "stalker" and a "crazy lunatic."
"The OEL uses fake accts. all the time to attack city leaders. It's just a part of life now. Get over it. Stop crying and whining about it, you sound like a deranged lunatic," the Vargas account posted.
Lane tagged the OEL in a post after the meeting: "Hey Matt Phonay...I'm gonna let you in on a little secret...I AM JOSIAH VARGAS!!! Chris Gonzales is Josiah Vargas. Tim Harry is Josiah Vargas. Jeff Russell is Josiah Vargas. Denise Swanner is Josiah Vargas. Matt Stringer is Josiah Vargas. Tisha Crow is Josiah Vargas. Javier Joven is Josiah Vargas. Jamie Tisdale is Josiah Vargas. But you know what...nobody on OEL is Josiah Vargas. Hopefully this clears that up for you!!! #iamjoaiahvargas"
Fake social media profiles are a "sign of the time," Matta said.
"Even the supposedly upstanding Odessans For Ethical Leadership are using the same tactics," Matta said. "I guess it's just a point of life. They have guys with fake profiles writing stories for them, commenting on them. All those likes and comments are the same people, they're even probably fake, but for people who go and read that to try and get information are just being misinformed, but if that's what they want to do for information, so be it."
"People are going to create profiles no matter what. It's just part of life," Swanner said.
She doubts efforts to educate voters about the facts of any particular issue will do any good.
"Personally I think it doesn't matter what you do. When a person forms an opinion, that's what their opinion is. You have all of these different groups and what they're told they believe and nobody really will confront it head on themselves. You can have town halls, but I don't think that it matters," Swanner said. "You can educate as much as you want, but people are still going to believe what they want to believe."
Matta shared similar thoughts.
"I think they should always go direct to the elected official for all of the facts, but people just don't do that. They're going to listen to whoever fits their narrative," Matta said.
Coday denies having his own fake accounts.
"I just have the balls to say whatever I want to say from my personal account. I think it's funny that Denise, Mark and Javier and that entire council want to scream about truth and integrity and transparency from behind fake profiles," Coday said.
He laughed when asked about Swanner's comment about his sobriety.
"I'm so glad that people like her pray for people like me. I've been sober since Aug. 21, 2018 and I think it's awfully funny that the city council woman who thanked an imaginary person for paying for her lunch is trying to discredit me by questioning my sobriety," Coday said. "We have all of these people who are talking about an imaginary person and I'm the crazy one."
Coday said the reputation of the Republican Party in Odessa has "taken a hit" and is losing members because of the divisiveness and ugliness showing up on Facebook, Coday said.
Russell rejected the idea the fake profiles have revealed a deep division within the Republican party.
"I think there are clearly defined lines between conservatives and liberals and I think, again, that's always been throughout our history. I think it just is what it is. I think this is kind of one of the things that makes our country work....You have opposing views and everybody gets into this marketplace of ideas and see if they can build a following around what they think is right," Russell said.
Russell and fellow ODC board member Kris Crow both said they have no issue with fake profiles and said the U.S. has a long history of people using nom de plumes or pen names. They also both cited Silence Dogood.
Silence Dogood was the pen name used by Benjamin Franklin to get 14 essays published in the New-England Courant, a newspaper founded and published by his brother James Franklin. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Benjamin was 16 at the time and he wrote in his autobiography he suspected his brother wouldn't have printed them had he known who wrote them.
"Here's what I thought was funny. Nobody has disagreed with anything Josiah Vargas says. Everybody just disagrees with there being a fake profile," Crow said following the Nov. 22 council meeting.
Bryant, who ran against Joven for mayor in 2020, didn't give his opinion on the fake profiles, preferring instead to focus on Odessans for Ethical Leadership's goal.
"Our mission is to educate people with the things that are happening within the city and the county, those things that affect our community," Bryant said.
As for being spoken ill of, Bryant laughed it off.
"That's OK because I know who I am and what I am," he said.
He is at a loss as to what to do about the misinformation being spread.
Newspapers are still good news sources, he said, but, "for some of the other, younger generations it just isn't an avenue for them. They'd rather hit that little Facebook deal or whatever it might be and it's instant."
Thompson, who was elected as District 2's councilman two years ago, said social media is the worst thing to happen to politics, ever.
"You can say whatever you want to say with no consequences," Thompson said.
While he checks the OEL Facebook page occasionally, he rarely posts on Facebook anymore because he was tired of being attacked.
Those behind the fake profiles either have something to hide or they just don't want to listen to those with differing opinions, Thompson said.
If someone posts a factual newspaper story or a factual opinion on certain pages, they just get removed by those behind the scenes, Thompson said.
"They're controlling the political dialogue through their social media source, which makes your paper pretty much irrelevant in the process," Thompson said. "I appreciate you because the people on this side of town, the ones I represent, read the paper, but everybody else does not."
Ector County Commissioner Mike Gardner, one of Lane's Facebook "friends," said he was unaware until recently the profile is a fake. He said he tends to accept friend requests when he sees they are interested in politics and/or are friends with other friends.
He's not happy with the phenomenon.
"It's very unethical, extremely unethical," Gardner said. "I can't understand anybody having the time that it takes to do that. You know, they're obviously intelligent enough to pull that over on Facebook and do that, wouldn't they be so much better trying to get involved in and make things better for people?"
Gardner said it's sad, but there will always people who will try to hurt others or stir up trouble.
"They're just putting something out of their mind that they're fantasizing about. To me it's a sick deal. I think it's pitiful for somebody to do that. It really is. It just let you know where we've gone to in our in our society," Gardner said.
Like Matta, Gardner wishes people would seek out other ways to get the facts.
"Pick up the phone and call. There's going to be somebody (you can ask) whether it's anything going on in city government or county government," Gardner said.
Part of the reason he ran for office was the level of divisiveness he was seeing playing out, Ector County Judge-Elect Dustin Fawcett said.
Like Gardner, he too tends to "friend" friends of friends and he shows up as one of Lane's friends.
He accepts that social media is now the way of getting information out, but he's discouraged about how it's been twisted.
"You essentially just have people trolling one another. All of it is a detriment to the discussion of local politics. It brings down the level of discourse in our community and I'm disappointed by that," Fawcett said. "It's disheartening to me because we're not talking about the actual problems in our community or the solutions. We're talking about comments on Facebook pages."
Anytime there's a big issue going on within the city or the county, Fawcett said misinformation is being spread.
Today, "Everybody has a platform to get out their perspective, whether it's right or wrong and your job is to build trust to where people trust your perspective and understand the whole picture," Fawcett said.
He bemoans the fact many people just complain about the disinformation being spread.
"It's the job of an elected official to go out and do a public information campaigning whether it's through their own personal Facebook page or the official Facebook of their officer, a public information officer or a press conference," Fawcett said. "My belief is that our job as elected officials is to counter those narratives."
Taking a different road
Once in office, Fawcett said he hopes to build bridges and regain the trust of voters.
"I think the divide is more prevalent now. I think that there are multiple factions within our community, but my thought is that, in all honesty, people are closer ideologically than what we think. Even the Democrats in our community and our Republicans are not that far different," Fawcett said. "A lot of (the divide) just comes down to a struggle over power than true ideological differences. I think that all of the groups think that they know best, but what it comes down to is a lack of communication and an unnecessary amount of animosity."
Rather than engaging in this "perpetual war" on Facebook, Fawcett said everyone needs to work on real issues, such as water, fire service, improving internet connectivity, illiteracy
"These are things that are challenging our community, but we're not talking about them, because we're more concerned that somebody posted an ugly comment online," Fawcett said.