Third District race turns sour amid accusations of online “trolling”

A collection of Facebook pages that run often- inflammatory critiques of candidates campaigning for the District 3 seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
A collection of Facebook pages that run often- inflammatory critiques of candidates campaigning for the District 3 seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.

Note: a statement by Debbie Peterson about comments on her Facebook page has been corrected.

The days of just posting a “Vote for ___” campaign sign in your yard for a candidate seem long gone.

Now supporters — and more importantly, opponents — of candidates have a free and largely ungoverned avenue where they can voice their opinions: social media.

In the District 3 supervisorial race pitting incumbent Adam Hill against challengers Dan Carpenter and Debbie Peterson, the online campaign has devolved into a tangled web of often venomous, anonymous Facebook pages with screen captures of deleted conversations and accusations hurled faster than any of it can be fact-checked.

The accusations run the gamut of poisoned pets, paid lackeys, mental instability, threats, stalking, harassment, cyberbullying and most recently trolling, though it’s often difficult to trace just where the accusations begin.

Profanity and name-calling are common. So are calls for various people to be arrested.

All three candidates say these online battles don’t represent their campaigns and condemn the behavior, deeming personal attacks inappropriate.

“There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the characteristics of an individual,” Carpenter said. “But going after them personally, I don’t want my supporters doing that.”

Carpenter said he did think he and Hill may have inadvertently encouraged the ugly online assaults by the obvious acrimony between them, but he cautioned his supporters not to take that as a directive to author personal attacks.

Hill said he doesn’t condone the online commenters’ antics — including those who say they are his supporters — and he hopes they will be able to move past them to have more civil discourse in the future.

“We’re kind of at that point, both in our local election and in the national election, where people say things online that you just wouldn’t say in person,” he said. “But it’s not something that we should continue to tolerate. It feels like it’s crossed a line.”

Neither Carpenter nor Hill have contacted the administrators of the pages or users to ask that they stop publishing inflammatory or personal attacks.

Peterson said she doesn’t pay close attention to the social media pages, and hasn’t noticed any negative commenting or attacks directed at herself recently, although she did note that she received some comments she thought were threatening on her campaign Facebook page about three months ago and also when she served as mayor of Grover Beach.

“I’m not interested in getting involved in all of that,” she said. “I really don’t pay much attention to it.”

Peterson said she’s focused on taking care of clients at her full-time job and running her campaign.

A quest for trolls

The online abuse has included references to the candidates’ families.

“Tattooed troll for Dan Carpenter is wanted for harassing private citizens who speak out,” read a post on “The Snarky Shit Stirrer,” a Facebook page dedicated to commenting on news in San Luis Obispo County. Bill Leys, who runs the page, says he supports Hill.

The post featured a picture of Carpenter’s adult daughter, Emily Carpenter, taken from her Facebook page, with the words, “Cal (sic) your local police department if you see this person trolling.”

The term “troll” refers to commenters who post deliberately offensive or provocative comments online, with the intention of eliciting a response.

“It just seems so wrong,” Emily Carpenter said Wednesday about the post. “It’s hurtful. My face is on the Internet, calling me a troll. This guy is just playing awful games.”

The image and the comment were posted Sunday and have since been removed from the page’s timeline, but the image remains among the page’s photos. Emily Carpenter said she became aware of the post Sunday night, after her dad called her.

“He said, ‘Don’t get upset, but you need to see this,’ ” she said through tears. “I was in shock, I was embarrassed. It’s just embarrassing.”

Emily Carpenter said she had tried multiple times to have the post flagged as inappropriate on Facebook and have it removed, but had had no luck as of Wednesday morning.

When reached for a comment, Dan Carpenter said he was upset by the post.

“As a father, when you see someone attack your daughter for something you are doing, it’s disheartening,” he said. “For anybody to come after a candidate or elected official’s family, it’s just inexcusable.”

Hill, who said he had not seen the post Wednesday, also condemned personal attacks on his opponents’ families, saying “there have to be boundaries.”

He noted, however, that his own family — including his wife, Dee Torres-Hill, and their eldest daughter — have been the targets of similar personal attacks for the four years he has been in office.

“There is this small bubble of venom made up of angry people who have corroded local civic discourse for a variety of personal and commercial reasons,” Hill wrote in an email to The Tribune. “They have (sought) and continue to seek to undermine a local democratic election by spreading hateful propaganda, often anonymously, and this should be addressed by anyone and everyone in this community who cares about our political and social culture.”

Leys said Wednesday that he “probably shouldn’t have done that,” in reference to the Carpenter post, and said he would likely take it down later that day. “It was kind of tit for tat,” he said. “A little trollish behavior; kind of a ‘see how you guys feel about it.’ ”

Leys, who styles himself as “The Snark” on the Facebook page and its corresponding Twitter account, said his alter ego is a way for him to “duck out of the direct line of fire, out of the vitriol” surrounding the District 3 election.

“I’ve made some admittedly blunt and crude comments of my own before creating the page,” he said of his earlier comments on social media pages about the election. “I have a sailor’s mouth and an Irish temper. ... But language is language, and I think people need to understand that. I’m just trying to criticize and call names at people that are public figures.”

Leys, who created “The Snarky Shit Stirrer” page April 10, said the Carpenter post was partly in response to a series of “wanted” posters on other social media sites — posters that called him out as a troll.

The idea of a wanted poster appears to have first arisen around March 27, when Facebook page “No Adam Hill for SLO” posted an image of Morro Bay resident Aaron Ochs under the header “Wanted, Adam Hill’s troll,” with the caption “Please report Adam Hill’s troll for stalking, defaming, and harassing everyone who speaks up against Adam Hill!”

Ochs, a Hill supporter, runs the website Cal Coast Fraud and its corresponding Facebook page. The page criticizes coverage from CalCoastNews.com, a local news blog, and regularly posts screen captures of online conversations with Hill opponents.

Fire Adam Hill 2016,” another anti-Hill Facebook page, reposted the same image of a wanted poster of Ochs less than an hour after it appeared on “No Adam Hill for SLO.”

Over the next three weeks, “No Adam Hill for SLO” and “Fire Adam Hill 2016” posted and reposted eight more wanted posters, listing Ochs and other Hill supporters — including Leys and Hill’s wife — as trolls, and asking the public to contact the police if they’ve been targeted or harassed by them. The posts also claim that Hill pays people to “intimidate, harass, and threaten anyone who opposes any of Adam Hill’s inappropriate behavior.”

Ochs denied the allegations that he is paid by Hill’s campaign, saying his only involvement with the supervisor has been Hill sharing or liking some of his posts on the Cal Coast Fraud site. Hill also denied ever paying Ochs or any other people identified on the posts.

On his Facebook page, Ochs posted April 13 that he was pursuing legal action against the two pages in response to the wanted posters. On Wednesday, Ochs declined to comment on the legal action, saying only that he was weighing his legal options.

‘Trolls’ and ‘clowns’

The “No Adam Hill for SLO” page responded to a request for comment on the wanted posters via Facebook Messenger, saying, “Adam Hill sent his trolls after my wife. After checking it out we started this page. These guys are clowns.”

The page representative declined repeated requests through Facebook Messenger to disclose his or her name or the name of the page owner.

The representative said the wanted posters have been “helpful in leading to information regarding the connections between Adam Hill and his trolls and in sharing the antics of Adam Hill with the people of SLO.”

“No Adam Hill for SLO,” which has only been active since March 10, primarily posts attack ads against Hill and videos showing Hill’s behavior on the dais at the County Board of Supervisors meetings — such as interrupting a speaker and criticizing someone’s comments. It also has posted a radio ad from Carpenter encouraging voters to “replace the bully” and two CalCoastNews items.

When contacted through Facebook, a representative of “Fire Adam Hill SLO” declined to disclose the identity of the page owner, responding to the question with a winky face emoji.

“My only comment to you,” the representative wrote, “is please encourage voters to do their own investigation” by visiting the various websites in deciding how to vote.

“Fire Adam Hill 2016” has been active since January and primarily reposts content from CalCoastNews, although it also posts radio podcasts from KVEC. In addition, it posts self-produced videos and screen captures of online comments made by Hill via his personal Facebook page and his supporters. The page also has a corresponding website.

The battleground — and in some cases, instigators — of many of the online clashes are the four anti- or pro-Hill Facebook pages, but the insults often extend to posts on Facebook pages for individuals and media outlets.

Capt. Chris Staley of the San Luis Obispo Police Department said Friday that police had not yet received any calls associated with the posts, though the department did ask “No Adam Hill for SLO” to not use the department badge on its fliers. (Fliers with the badge were removed and replaced with new fliers featuring a generic badge.)

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie