A message on the marquee at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft in April 2020 encouraged social distancing. Credit: Ernie Clark / BDN

A mass text message sent to several Piscataquis County residents last week purportedly from a newly formed local activist group shows how disinformation has found its way into all levels of American politics, whether it involves a presidential election or county commissioner debate, according to an expert.

The texts use cultural wedge issues including refugee settlement and LGBTQ rights in an apparent attempt to undermine support for the local activist group PROACT, which takes no stance on such issues. The group formed in January in response to county commissioners’ passage of an anti-mask resolution that referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” and said mask-wearing could cause respiratory illness.

The text messages were not over the top, and there were few obvious indications to recipients that the texts were fake.

The messages injected national cultural issues into an unrelated debate before the Piscataquis County commissioners over providing a letter of support to the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft as it applies for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to pay for structural repairs.

Commissioners voted 2-1 against providing the letter of support after accusing theater leaders of politicizing the institution. They also voted to ask the Maine attorney general’s office or the district attorney to investigate the theater’s past use of grants.

Both the theater’s executive director, Patrick Myers, and board chair, Cynthia Freeman Cyr, publicly opposed the commissioners’ January resolution.

It is still unclear who sent the text message. A call on Tuesday to the Dexter-based number the texts came from yielded only an automated message that said the owner had not set up voicemail. An email address used in the text is invalid, but it closely resembles an email address that does belong to PROACT.

A list of bank account transactions provided by PROACT Treasurer Gloria Zela shows no evidence the group paid for a text campaign. Zela and other PROACT members said the texts were clearly fraudulent.

“We have never considered, approved, or paid for unsolicited texting or phoning services,” Zela said.

Piscataquis County Commissioner Andrew Torbett, who accused the Center Theatre at the last county commissioners’ meeting of hurting local businesses, said he was unaware of the texts. He said the “only thing he’d seen from PROACT” was a recent request to rescind the January anti-mask resolution.

The Piscataquis County text is a clear example of what disinformation researchers call a butterfly attack, said Brian Friedberg, a researcher who studies disinformation at Harvard University’s Tech and Social Change Project and reviewed the Piscataquis County texts. That occurs when an imposter pretends to be a member of a group or campaign to sow division and spread disinformation.

The attacks usually occur on social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter and often involve fake members of a group publicizing controversial views. Cultural wedge issues such as LGBTQ rights and refugee resettlement are commonly referenced, as they were in the Piscataquis County texts.

Opponents of that group can then use those posts as evidence that the group being imitated holds such views.

Disinformation is more commonly spread over social media than texts, Friedberg said. Social media sites routinely remove posts containing misinformation and extreme content, but there is little that can be done about texts sent directly to people rather than posted to a public platform.

“These people put out a fake ad on Facebook that could be mitigated with pressure,” Friedberg said. “But how do you mitigate attacks that have already been sent?”

Use of texts to spread disinformation are uncommon but not unheard of. During the 2018 U.S. Senate election in Texas, someone pretending to be a volunteer for Democrat Beto O’Rourke requested volunteers who could drive undocumented immigrants to voting booths.

While the O’Rourke campaign said the texts were unsanctioned, they quickly spread on social media among O’Rourke opponents who believed they were authentic.

Disinformation campaigns can use kernels of truth to spread lies. One of the Piscataquis County text messages calls for recipients to support the Center Theatre in its grant application, noting that it had created the first “Transgender-Friendly” bathrooms in Piscataquis County.

The Center Theatre bathrooms are labeled by gender identity rather than biological sex, Myers, the theater’s executive director, said. The sign on the door of the women’s bathroom, for example, is marked “female gender identity.” Myers said it was an effort by the theater to be inclusive, and felt that the texts, which he has reported to the Maine attorney general’s office, presented the theater’s actions offensively.

“We find it extremely troubling when fraudulent messages are used to spread disinformation,” Myers said. “The text messages were written to cause dissent and division in our community.”

Stemming the spread of disinformation is no easy task, Friedberg said, given the increasingly partisan nature of American politics and the ability of people to only consume media that confirms their viewpoints. For example, Friedberg said, the New York Times’ reporting on falsehoods associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory has not slowed that movement’s growth.