The Dangers of Social Media and The Challenge of Confirming the Facts

The Dangers of Social Media and
The Challenge of Confirming the Facts
By Susan M. Halpern
Former Addison Councilmember (1992-1999)

Recent events in our country have focused attention on the improper use of social media to spread false and misleading information. The highest profile issues relate to the apparent attempt by the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election by using social media, including phony Facebook accounts.  I have felt a great sense of déjà vu.  Addison has been there and done that, mostly at the hands of its misguided ex-mayor, who misused social media to spread demonstrably inaccurate and misleading information during his tenure.  Ours is a cautionary tale, emphasizing the need to identify the source of information, and to do everything possible to check the facts.

Let’s take a few examples. Start with the recent “Aslaugh Lothbrook” affair.  Those who would divide us took a page out of Vladimir Putin’s playbook, creating false profiles on social media platforms, and then posting links to their latest negative spin.  The fictional name prevented the reader from identifying the source of the information which, in turn, denied the reader critical context.  The same tactic was used last year, when a cryptically named political action committee circulated vile and venomous attacks during last year’s election.  In this instance, “Aslaugh Lothbrook” was rather obvious, as detailed in a prior article.  And, our suspicions were confirmed when the ex-mayor’s girlfriend made a later attempt to post the very same link and information on another social media site.  Just negative folks doing what negative folks do.

But consider a more serious effort made during Addison’s 2017 election, orchestrated by Addison’s ex-mayor, using Addison’s email list. On the Saturday before early voting began, he circulated a newsletter in which he claimed that Mayor Joe Chow and Councilmember Tom Braun might not be eligible under the term limit provision contained in Addison’s Charter.  Of course, that claim was utterly false, because the Charter provision deals only with consecutive terms, not total terms.  But the newsletter suggested otherwise.

The ex-mayor omitted critical information. Months earlier, he had asked Addison’s attorney about this very issue.  In response, the attorney had prepared a lengthy and thorough memo in which she concluded that both Chow and Braun were eligible.  The attorney’s memo included the language of the ballot proposition through which Addison residents had voted for term limits.  That language was clear and unambiguous, and left no doubt that Chow and Braun were eligible.  But the ex-mayor omitted all of it.  And, he enhanced the deception by writing the newsletter in a way that unquestionably led voters to believe that he had left no stone unturned in an effort to find information needed to resolve the issue.  Which, of course, was patently false.  In reality, he had omitted the most important information of all.

Of course, publishing this misleading account on the Saturday before the start of early voting on Monday, left the council with no time to react. So, early voters went to the polls on Monday having been misinformed by their own mayor (who soon thereafter became their ex-mayor).  Then, when the council decided to meet that Friday to consider publishing the attorney’s memo so as to correct the public record, the ex-mayor claimed to be unavailable.  He tried to delay the meeting until after early voting concluded the following week.  Luckily, the council moved forward without him, meeting that Friday at 5:30 p.m., and voting to release the attorney’s memo.  That corrected the public record.  But by then, five days of early voting had occurred.

So, where was the ex-mayor such that he was “unavailable” to consider the important business of correcting the false record he had created? By happenstance, he was spotted that evening at the 7:30 p.m. David Sedaris show at the Winspear in downtown Dallas, a 20-minute drive from Town Hall, where the 5:30 p.m. council meeting went forward without him.  He could have attended the council meeting and made it to the performance in plenty of time.  Which seems to confirm his intent to delay correction of the misleading record he had created.

This type of vignette played out again and again during the prior administration. And the problem was amplified by the ease with which misleading information could be created and then circulated using social media.  And, as is the case with the current national issues, such misinformation sometimes gained momentum because it was repeated again and again, no matter what the facts were or what facts had been withheld.  This is another tactic of those pursuing negative spin in Addison.  They repeat things as if they were fact, when they are not.  And, they omit critical facts and context.  Then, they feed such misinformation to the local media, which inevitably leads to the flawed argument that if the media writes about it, it must be important.  Of course, without ever mentioning that they sought out the coverage.  It is circular and it is nonsense.

Consider one last example: Addison’s financials. This was the faux issue of the 2016 election, mentioned again recently.  It’s a classic example of a fabricated issue, fed through the suppression of critical information, and with the complicity of a hand-picked shill accountant.  In claiming that Addison’s financials were somehow inadequate, these negative folks continually fail to mention that the day before the shill accountant issued his report, he was on the phone with the ex-mayor discussing its contents.  It’s right there in the time entries on his bill to the Town.  Which bill was approved by the ex-mayor.  Can anyone be surprised that the shill account later dutifully and obediently did the bidding of the ex-mayor, trashing Addison’s former staff and management?  But all that critical context was never disclosed to the public.

And of course, it was all made possible by the improper suppression of the key Lea Dunn memo, withheld in violation of the Open Records Act and with the clear intent to conceal the information it contained. Had it been produced, it would have exposed the campaign of lies then being orchestrated by the ex-mayor.

And here’s the other thing. The first addendum to the shill accountant’s contract with the town was on the council’s consent agenda that same year, and it was voted on by the council.  But that addendum was not included in the agenda or anywhere on Addison’s website, either before, during or after that meeting.  I doubt that council ever saw it.  It was snuck by everyone.  The addendum purported to create the fiction that the shill accountant was hired not by Addison, but by its lawyers, in an effort to improperly cloak his work in the attorney-client privilege.  It was a clear attempt to conceal what he was doing from the public, and had it been included in the agenda as it should have been, it would have raised enormous red flags.  But it wasn’t included.  It was concealed by the very ex-mayor who repeatedly touted transparency.  And, of course, the premise of the document was utterly false.  The shill accountant was hired by Addison and our taxpayer money paid his bills.  How could anyone read these facts and not question the conduct of the ex-mayor or the shill accountant?  All of it demonstrates the critical nature of context, and the importance of knowing the facts.

Consider as well that during this time, the ex-mayor led the council to form a finance committee. This happened at a meeting when the issue was not on the agenda, so the public had no notice about it.  The ex-mayor and last year’s losing mayoral candidate were two of the three members of this committee, which met out of the public’s eye.  And who did they meet with?  The shill accountant, of course.  But not then-City Manager Lea Dunn and then-Chief Financial Officer Eric Cannon, who were excluded from the finance committee’s meetings.  Does any of that sound legitimate?

And here’s the other thing. Where were the auditors in all this?  Every single year, independent and impartial certified public accountants audit Addison’s books and records.  They do now and they did then.  And Addison has consistently received clean audits, not to mention awards for the strength of its financial reporting.  All of which is irreconcilable with the inflammatory and bombastic claims that were made about Addison’s finances in 2016, in an effort to sway Addison voters with half a story.  If the work being done was a genuine effort to analyze Addison’s financials, the auditors would have been included.  But they weren’t.  Instead, the shill accountant obediently trashed Addison’s staff while its ex-mayor suppressed Lea Dunn’s memo.

The facts do indeed matter, and the information provided herein makes a pretty clear case for the conclusion that significant facts were withheld, even as the prior administration leveled vicious attacks against prior staff and management. And continue to do so, while never owning all that was omitted.  But then, it was too easy for far too long for the prior administration to suppress the facts, including because the ex-mayor had absolute control of Addison’s newsletter.  Remember all that the next time the folks who seek to who would divide us try to resurrect these attacks.  We all need to challenge these folks with the facts.

It’s so easy to tell half a story in social media. And even easier to repeat it.  And then say it some more.  And then feed it to the newspaper or the TV station.  And then argue that if those folks run it, it must be true.  Addison has been victimized by such tactics, and it saddens me to watch it happening on the national stage.  We must learn from our experiences, and protest such tactics as Addison moves forward into a new, truly transparent age.  First and foremost, we must be careful to identify the source of our information.  When fictional characters like Aslaugh Lothbrook are used to conceal the identity of those purporting to provide information, we need to view their claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.  People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.  And when folks hide their identities, you can bet it is for good reason.  We should be suspicious of those who mislead.  And, we should all take the time to check the facts as best we can, including by reviewing information on Addison’s website.

Addison deserves good, honest government, including seven councilmembers who are truly and earnestly dedicated to being a positive part of our community. In turn, Addison voters deserve truth and accuracy in evaluating issues and candidates.

So, please consider the important work we are doing here at Truth in Addison. The more we understand about the facts, circumstances and context, the better able we are to demand and vote for the government that Addison deserves.