If you take a look on social media, you might think there is something terribly wrong taking place in Oro-Medonte.
Various “people” of numerous political stripes have taken to social media, Facebook groups in particular, to vent and disseminate information — and disinformation — about current council members, local issues, and one another in combative ways.
On one side of the issue are citizens frustrated with the township’s actions on a number of matters, some of which include continuing concerns surrounding short-term rentals and council’s decision to deny internet and telephone voting in the upcoming municipal election.
On the other side are Facebook users, a number of whom are using fake profiles, who actively work to subvert what they call “special-interest groups,” such as ratepayers associations and concerned citizens groups on issues like short-term rentals, with a prolific presence in various Facebook groups.
Both seem to support or attack different members of council.
However, Oro-Medonte Mayor Harry Hughes argues all is generally well in the township.
“I’ve knocked on over 1,000 doors so far in my campaign, and I will get around the whole township, as big as it is,” he said. “I can tell you I have not run into one person that hasn’t said how happy they are to live in Oro-Medonte.
“There’s about one per cent of the people that want to turn it up and make things look bad.”
While he said he is unfamiliar with the fake Facebook profiles, Hughes chalked the township’s social media controversies up to a small group of “political hobbyists” who have been actively working to undermine the current council, and he says a number of those people have used ratepayers associations, the BarrieToday letters-to-the-editor section, or other citizen groups to spread disparaging information.
“This is an election campaign that has never stopped, and the same people are taking turns,” Hughes said.
He said the group is attempting to wrest control of council in the upcoming election and is wilfully spreading misinformation with the aim of undermining council ahead of attempting to solve the issues at hand.
“They have the underlying belief that anyone who is elected to politics has to be corrupt. They are reaching out and bringing (up) corruption when it doesn’t really exist,” he said. “The other thing is that they want to project a myth, saying what Oro-Medonte council needs now are just new, fresh faces — when you look at the fact that, in the last election alone, after the two (council members) that passed away, I was the only experienced person on council.”
A number of these people, Hughes argued, have begun acting through established citizen groups or have splintered off into smaller groups to give the impression of a larger presence.
Another side of the issue is a group of residents concerned with more than 20, seemingly fake profiles operating across a wide range of Facebook groups over the past two years.
Some are profiles with virtually no posts, while others are clearly using pictures sourced elsewhere.
Some of the profiles have taken to posting in the group called “Simcoe Barrie Oro-Medonte Community Matters,” repeatedly accusing certain members of council of misogyny or racism, commonly attacking Coun. Ian Veitch, as well as accusing “special-interest groups” of trying to manipulate council.
In an open letter to Hughes, resident Diana Wells argued the Facebook group is host to numerous libellous and untrue claims, interestingly, against the groups Hughes pointed to as problematic.
“This private Facebook group posts libellous, false, harassing and hurtful commentary about private and public persons and groups,” she wrote. “I was quite disturbed by the numerous and targeted attacks on neighbourhood resid
“In delving deeper, I found that the administrators of this site hide behind fabricated and invented Facebook profiles. These include Ella McDonald, Charlotte Tremblay, Amelia Martin, James Wilson, Anne Smith and Rick Hamilton. Until quite recently, one Heide Mcd appears to be the only ‘real’ administrator.”
One of these individuals operates under the name Nora Johnstone, who — according to Oro-Medonte resident Tim Taylor — uses pictures from a woman living in Arkansas.
After finding the photo’s source, he contacted the woman in question, who was “livid” about her photos being used elsewhere.
“In the original profile, there was a picture of a woman, and we discovered that it was a picture from a dating site in Nairobi, Kenya,” Taylor said. “Now there was also a picture of a young girl fishing and … the caption was, basically, ‘So proud of my granddaughter.’ It’s not hard tracking these things, and … I personally called her and said, ‘Hey, there’s this picture that I think comes from this other website.’”
Operating behind fake profiles, Taylor said, the group of Facebook users repeatedly posts inflammatory, slanted information. Many are prolific writers, he said, with dozens of posts each.
Their reach extends well beyond Oro-Medonte, he said, and often targets the same people or organizations.
“(They’re) populating groups in Toronto, London, central Ontario, Muskoka. They’re in Severn. They’re in Wasaga Beach. They are literally ubiquitous. If you look at the profiles, they’re all empty. They’re all fake,” he said. “They attack Coun. Greenlaw regularly, Coun. Veitch exclusively, and then they also go after these ratepayers groups.”
He has been tracking their activity over the past couple of years.
“When you look at a lot of these characters, there’s probably about five or six that are very similar. They write exactly the same thing over and over and over again,” Taylor said. “If you were to professionally match that language, I’m pretty sure they’re all the same people. I think it’s emanating from the same place.”
Taylor, a member of the Oro-Medonte Property Owners Association, said he has been subject to many attacks himself.
“They go after me as the guy that’s making up stuff with research,” he said. “I’m doing research on behalf of a group that is actually analyzing municipal data, so all of the data that I’ve gathered, I’ve got primary source documents. So, I’m not making any extrapolations.”
Similarly, the information put forward by the fake profiles and the so-called “special-interest groups,” whether entirely credible or not, is often backed up by real information.
Regardless of whether it is misleading, all parties involved seem to root their arguments in real information.
The fake profiles will often make points with reference to compiled video snippets of Oro-Medonte council meetings, where ratepayers associations and citizen groups make arguments rooted in available municipal information as well.
Sandra Jeppesen, an interdisciplinary studies professor with Lakehead University, highlighted the importance of these groups’ arguments being rooted in verifiable information.
However, she also said fake news often contains an element of truth.
“I think they’re trying to do their due diligence, so I wanted to just give some credit for that,” she said. “I would suggest that in any debate, there’s some falsity on both sides and some exaggeration on both sides.”
She pointed to the COVID-19 example of rapid antigen tests, where their limitations — such as commonly false negative results — were often used as grounds to dismiss their efficacy.
“The fact that it doesn’t work in a particular way that you thought it did is true, but saying that it doesn’t work, it’s a joke, is not true,” she told OrilliaMatters. “It’s very nuanced, so the nuances between factual news and fake news can be sometimes quite subtle. Other times, it’s just very obvious.”
Jeppesen pointed to social media’s capacity for creating echo chambers, where people only encounter information they agree with, as well as social media’s propensity for generating outrage, as part of the reason situations similar to Oro-Medonte’s are taking place online.
“It reinforces their already existing opinions about something and they will look for that media, but also they don’t really have to look very far because their social media will reproduce that for them,” she said. “They’re not getting a diversity of opinions. They’re not getting a broad sampling of news on a topic. They’re really having their own opinions reinforced.
“The more angry you get, the more likely you are to stay on social media, so the algorithms are actually generating anger.”
On a broader scale, Jeppesen pointed to the numerous crises that have happened in recent times — from the 2008 financial crisis to COVID-19, the housing crisis, rampant inflation, and more, as more complex factors in the outrage being displayed in many places online.
“People are stretched to the max in our everyday lives. We’re losing the things that we have always counted on, to be able to afford rent, to be able to have a place to live, to be able to even afford our groceries. We don’t have that anymore 100 per cent across our society,” she said. “We can become angry more easily because we’re already under so much pressure in our everyday lives. Those two together are a perfect storm.”
Additionally, Jeppesen highlighted the anonymity afforded by social media as a broad, relatively unenforceable issue.
“With digital media, people feel like they can say anything and everything and the problem is, especially when it’s anonymous, that then there’s no accountability. It’s very difficult to track people down if there’s slandering or defaming or that kind of thing, or if they’re committing libel,” she said.
“If the police wanted to track down everyone who (posts) something libellous on social media or in the comments to media, or even in the letters to the editors, I think that’s all they would do.”