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Did Dallas-Fort Worth political candidate troll residents with fake Facebook profile?

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 9/17/2020 By Mark Dent, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A few months ago, a newcomer named Rhyan Robert waded deep into heated political discussions on one of the most popular Facebook groups in Colleyville. As protests for George Floyd unfolded throughout the country, he applauded Colleyville for organizing a unity rally. As schools considered how to bring kids back in the fall, he questioned the efficacy of current ventilation systems. He also accused a Colleyville resident of being an anarchist and shared a photo of a Grapevine resident’s face superimposed on a Reuters photo of a KKK member.

Robert’s picture on his Facebook profile shifted between a Guy Fawkes mask and the pixelated face of a middle-aged white man with eyeglasses and awkward sideburns. The profile stated he was a consultant who had recently moved to Grapevine from Austin. But plenty of people were suspicious of his real identity. Colleyville Facebook groups, some of which are highly active and have upward of 2,000 members, occasionally discuss the presence of fake accounts, accusing them of pushing political agendas.

On June 25, someone challenged Robert, noting he seemed to be a “fake troll liberal” profile. “I’m legit,” Robert replied.

But nobody named Rhyan Robert exists in the entire country, according to a people search on the database LexisNexis, one of the world’s largest electronic repositories of legal and public records. The profile had all the signs of a fake: strange profile pictures, a timeline of posts that dated back only a few months, almost no interactions from other accounts on its wall.

On the part of the profile where the owner of the account can enter a phone number to appear publicly, a number was listed that is associated with Tommy Snyder, a candidate for the Grapevine-Colleyville school district board election in November. The phone number was visible to people who were friends with the Robert account. It matches the one listed as belonging to Snyder on a public Fair Campaign Practices document filled out earlier this year. That number is also listed as the contact number for 1619 Capital Partners, a company that names Snyder as its president and CEO.

The Star-Telegram confirmed the appearance of the phone number through phone calls, screenshots and a Zoom conference with two sources who were Facebook friends with Robert.

Reached at that phone number on Sept. 3, Snyder denied the account was affiliated with him and said he didn’t know details about how it was created. “I’ve seen it,” he said of the Rhyan Robert account. “Absolutely I’ve seen it.” Told his phone number appears on the account’s page, Snyder replied, “That’s even weirder.” He couldn’t recall receiving any text messages or notices from Facebook about confirming his number for the account. He added, “Looks like I have some research to do.”

Sometime between Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, the Robert account was deactivated on Facebook, and all of its posts from major Colleyville Facebook groups vanished. Snyder did not respond to a follow-up phone call on Sept. 14.

Asked whether a phone number that appeared publicly on a Facebook profile had to be verified by a text or phone call to that number, a spokesperson from Facebook said, “We have systems in place to help validate access to a phone number before it can appear on a person’s public profile, including SMS confirmation.” The spokesperson added, “Facebook removes accounts that break our rules on misrepresentation that are found through our automated tools or human review. We constantly are working to improve our enforcement so we can keep this activity off Facebook.”

The Star-Telegram had shared details of the Robert account with Facebook before its deactivation. People who participate on Colleyville Facebook groups had also reported the Robert account to Facebook.

Colleyville’s ordeal with fakes

America, of course, has been awash in fake Facebook accounts, many of them politically-oriented and mass produced by hackers. In 2019, the company removed roughly 5 billion fake accounts and 3 billion the previous year. It has removed accounts associated with Russia and the media organization Epoch Times in the last year.

Colleyville has its own fake account problem, albeit on a much less complex level. Tipsters have shared with the Star-Telegram multiple accounts involved in Colleyville groups, in addition to Rhyan Robert, that they accuse of being fake and encompass a wide range of the political spectrum. One questionable account, under the name Sherry Michael, copped to being a fake this summer after writing a post in a popular group saying her fictional 8-year-old daughter had died of coronavirus. “The post itself,” she wrote, “was an allegory to the story in the Bible in which Abraham sacrifices his son Issac in the name of the Lord; framing Sherry’s negligence as a necessary sacrifice in the name of conservative evangelical ideology.”

Colleyville, although staunchly Republican, has experienced a rift between tea party conservatives and more moderate conservatives in recent years. Grapevine is more politically mixed but had about a 60-40 Republican advantage in the 2018 U.S. Senate election. Although local elections feature no partisan designations on the ballot — and some school district candidates do not specify any party affiliations during their campaigns — political groups like Empower Texans, the True Texas Project (formerly the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party) and Protect Colleyville have become involved in Northeast Tarrant races. True Texas-backed candidates have dominated Colleyville city council elections but have failed to take over the Grapevine-Colleyville school board, which oversees schools that received mostly As and Bs in the 2018-19 TEA ratings. The True Texas Project and its key members have expressed support for Snyder, and he has appeared at the True Texas Project’s meetings.

Disagreements among these factions have regularly played out on four Facebook public groups that have between 1,000 and 2,000 members each. In these groups, it’s not unusual to find residents and even past and current city council members sniping at each other over topics ranging from development, to taxes, to social issues, to personal matters.

Potential fake accounts are sometimes hinted at in the groups, although pinning down their creator is usually difficult. Even some of the accounts that had friended Robert had the characteristics of fake accounts. Jorge Rodríguez, a current GCISD board member who is up for election in November, posted in the GCISD Parents for Strong Schools group on Aug. 13, “This page is an anti-GCISD Board echo chamber full of fake profiles.” In a reply on Aug. 19, Rodríguez called out the Robert account as being one of the fakes.

“There’s a small group of people there whose goal in my opinion is to unseat board members and put their friends onto the school board,” Rodríguez said in an interview. “And fake profiles seem to be part of their strategy.”

He described the fake profiles as an attempt to inject politics into the school board elections, noting he believed the fake accounts tended to portray themselves as liberals who supported incumbent board members, thus painting the incumbents as left-leaning. Asked how long this had been going on, he replied, “years.”

Rhyan Robert’s posts and antagonistic behavior

Rhyan Robert introduced himself in the GCISD Parents for Strong Schools group in March. He gave thanks for being added to the community and noted that he hoped his son would eventually enroll in GCISD. Robert had also started sharing on his own profile a few weeks earlier, explaining portions of his life story in a series of posts that received little or no interaction: that he was a recent divorcee, a former Austin resident and a consultant who was interested in an open HR position with GCISD.

He was also a fan of old cars and motorcycles. In a Feb. 19 post, Robert, sharing a photo of a vintage, rusted car, wrote, “found a pic of my old Pontiac! This baby could hold a bunch of us.” That picture can be found on the website ClassicCars.com. Robert wrote in early March that the weather had inspired him to make a crazy decision his ex-wife would hate, sharing a picture of an old-school Honda motorcycle. “She said I’m not cool enough anymore. I’m going to hit the gym and hit the roads,” Robert posted. As with the Pontiac, an identical photo of the motorcycle can be found on the internet, at StreetBikeRider.us.

Robert engaged more regularly with the GCISD Parents for Strong Schools group starting in May. He began with a post about whether anyone had seen the HBO movie “Bad Education.” In a reply on the post, Robert stated he supported a “straight democratic slate” on the GCISD school board of incumbents Rodríguez and Doug Noell, as well as Coley Canter, a challenger for the same board position as Snyder.

In June, Robert praised a Colleyville Rally for Unity and noted he had a petition for defunding the police. After the event, on June 12, Robert posted photos from what he referred to as a “great rally.” Chris Putnam, a Colleyville resident and challenger for Kay Granger’s congressional seat in the 2020 Republican Primary, replied to the post with a photo of Black Lives Matter graffiti. Robert wrote back, “I’m assuming you like the cops. SMH.”

Things shifted on June 23, with Robert’s posts becoming more antagonistic and targeted at individuals in the community. He accused a local woman of being a member of the protest group Enough is Enough and that same woman of making Snyder and his wife “look like racists” for saying they “liked” a photo on Facebook of Colleyville councilwoman Tammy Nakamura posing with a man who had a Confederate flag on his wheelchair. Nine days earlier, Snyder had called out the same woman in a post on his personal public Facebook account and vehemently denied he was racist.

On June 24, Robert accused Colleyville resident Matthew Laity, an administrator of the Facebook group Colleyville Citizens for Accountability, of being part of Enough is Enough and Black Lives Matter. The next day, he referred to Laity and Mike Sexton, a former candidate for Colleyville city council and administrator of the Advocates for GCISD Facebook group, as anarchists and atheists. “Do not be fooled by them,” he wrote. On June 24, Snyder used his personal Facebook account to describe Sexton as a “progressive socialist” and “community divider.” “Stop being pathetic and please for the love of everything that is good........ please stop lying!!!!!” Snyder wrote.

Robert also told a member of the GCISD Facebook group that the member’s criminal record should prevent him from using social media. In an unrelated post, he positioned the face of Grapevine resident Greg Hart superimposed on a KKK member wielding a Confederate flag that matches a Reuters photo from a 2015 South Carolina rally. Hart has consistently attacked Snyder’s candidacy for the school board on his public Facebook profile and on Advocates for GCISD and Colleyville Citizens for Accountability (Hart declined to comment).

The stretch run to the election

Nationwide, reports of public officials and political candidates using fake accounts are sporadic. A California city councilwoman and a Vermont police chief have been accused of it. In Victoria, Texas, a staffer for former mayor Paul Polasek claimed he and Polasek created fake Facebook accounts to antagonize opponents (Polasek denied any involvement). Sen. Mitt Romney admitted to having a burner Twitter account, but, in his own words, used it as a “lurker” who rarely posted.

Rita Kirk, an SMU professor and director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility, described the actions of a political candidate who uses a fake Facebook account to troll people as morally unacceptable. “It violates the public trust,” she said. “That’s supposedly what you’re running for because you want to represent people. I don’t think that’s really the way people want to be represented.”

Snyder, who has an eclectic background that includes military service, co-ownership of the Stockyards bar Stampede Saloon and a stint playing for the late musician Charlie Daniels, is running for office for the second year in a row. He lost the election for GCISD Place 3 in 2019 by a margin of about 2%. He has the support of the True Texas Project. In May, at a True Texas Project meeting, Snyder led the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge and introduced himself and two other school board candidates as a slate to vote for. He is also on the True Texas Project’s flag football team, which is playing this fall in a Grapevine league.

As the November election nears, Snyder has been gearing for the stretch run. An early September post on his campaign’s Facebook account alerted his supporters that they could pick up yard signs featuring his name.

Snyder also recently released a song with Chris Putnam called “Don’t Pass Me That Corona.” One of the lyrics is, “I’m gettin’ upset/’cause I’ve reached the end of the internet.”

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©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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