AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to political campaigns, it’s not always easy to tell who is saying what — from political groups not disclosing donors in high-stakes federal race to anonymous social media pages that are upending local elections.
Two Facebook pages in Lewiston focusing on city elections and Central Maine Power’s controversial hydropower corridor are using similar methods. Their creators have refused to disclose their identities and appear to be aiming to subvert the causes they claim to support.
These efforts are not new in local races. Lewiston’s 2017 mayoral race was roiled by negative articles about a progressive candidate on a website that was run anonymously by a top Maine Republican Party officials until he admitted his involvement in a state ethics proceeding. Similarly opaque Facebook pages operated in Waterville’s 2018 mayoral recall race.
With social media becoming an ever-present fixture in our lives, it’s unlikely that anonymous actors in politics will go away anytime soon. Here’s what to look for if you see a page operating anonymously or spreading misinformation.
The major tells of a fake page are its age, name and what it’s sharing. Daniel Funke, who reports on misinformation for the nonprofit journalism school and research organization Poynter Institute, said pages that change names frequently and share content covering a variety of subjects from many places are usually looking to reach a wide audience and capitalize on political outrage. A page that does not disclose who is running it is also suspect, Funke said.
Funke said Facebook has always had problems with misinformation, but the situation came to a head during the 2016 presidential election, when thousands of ads were purchased by Russian groups to try to influence the election. Facebook now partners with fact-checking groups such as Poynter to try and combat fake groups, although the company is facing criticism for its policy of not removing false political ads.
Social media is appealing to parties looking to spread misinformation because it “destroys the means of production,” Funke said. People used to have to rely on getting their voice in the local newspaper or on television to spread their views, but anyone with an internet connection can create a page and attract views.
“The problem with the democratization of information is that it’s so easy for anybody to post something baseless and pretend to be someone else,” Funke said.
Two pages in particular are driving conversation in Lewiston. One page, Lewiston Undivided, purports itself to be a nonpartisan group looking to “fight racism, restrict gun ownership, pursue social justice for mistreated immigrants, and elect candidates who pledge to follow this agenda,” according to its about section.
But it has attracted the ire of the Lewiston Democratic Party, and chair Kiernan Majerus-Collins called page’s tactics “despicable” on the party’s own Facebook page and threatened to file an ethics complaint if it wasn’t shut down. Majerus-Collins said Monday his group is still in the process of putting a complaint together, but said it would be difficult to enforce, since the group is anonymous.
Another page is Lewiston Friends of CMP, described in its ‘About’ section as grassroots campaign supporting the New England Clean Energy Connect project. That effort to build a 145-mile corridor through western Maine hinges on a converter station being built in Lewiston.
The project was endorsed by the Lewiston City Council, but it divides the mayoral race. Tim Lajoie and Charles Soule do not support the project, while Mark Cayer does. A spokesperson for CMP said the company is unaware of who is running the page.
The Lewiston pages are similar in tone, age and ad strategy. Descriptions of both pages claim no affiliation with any political party, but both say they support Cayer, who nevertheless told the Sun Journal that the pages were undermining him.
Lewiston Undivided was created Aug. 12 under the name “Lewiston Indivisible” — perhaps a nod to a national liberal grassroots campaign created after the election of President Donald Trump. Lewiston Friends of CMP was created June 10. Neither page responded to messages requesting comment for this story.
Neither pages have paid for ads in their history, according to Facebook’s ad library, which means their content is circulating only by people sharing them. That allows the pages’ creators to get around the platform’s authorization process, which requires the creator to confirm their location and provide identification before they can start running ads. It also requires any ads the page runs to carry a “paid for” label.
Old-fashioned methods are still in use. Signs that ostensibly support Central Maine Power’s proposed corridor to send Quebec hydropower to the regional power grid have popped up recently in Maine, including at the site of a September explosion that leveled the nonprofit LEAP Inc. building in Farmington and killed one firefighter.
Those signs have denounced by the utility and the grassroots organization leading a 2020 referendum push against the corridor and say they are paid for by a group called Patriots for Clean Energy, which is not registered as a business or a political committee in Maine.
The only sign of the group’s backers are grainy surveillance stills released by Central Maine Power last month of people erecting signs near the utility’s Augusta headquarters in the night. That’s more than we know about the people behind the Facebook pages.