As some of you noticed, I wrote a column last week about 2018 Redwood City Council candidate Christina Umhofer and her use of a false Facebook identity to harshly criticize Councilwoman Giselle Hale. In that seven-candidate race, Hale finished first and Umhofer finished fifth.
Among the many comments came a furious reaction and a flurry of counter-postings that were – what’s the right word here? – incredible. I want to go over the aftermath, not out of some desire to keep the issue alive, but because it says some unfortunate things about the current political environment and the social media atmosphere in which public officials, and even columnists, must exist.
But, first, to review: I had been researching the column for a few days and sent a list of questions to Umhofer about the fake identity – Ann Marie. She never responded to me, but she did preemptively post on her 2018 campaign Facebook page an admission that she had created the false Facebook identity.
She said she did so because she had been blocked from posting on Hale’s campaign page during the campaign. After the election, Hale unblocked her, but Umhofer admitted she continued to use the false identity to make comments on Hale’s page. She said it was an oversight. And here’s the key element of attribution to the information in this paragraph – that’s all according to Umhofer. She’s the source for this information. Not me, not my fevered imagination.
I then wrote the column, reprinting, word for word, what Umhofer had said. I also quoted Hale acknowledging that she had blocked Umhofer during the campaign, but she unblocked her after the election. I also noted a few examples of related activity by Umhofer, including that she populated the secret identity with false facts, so as to appear to be a real person. And I cited some examples where Umhofer commented directly on postings by her alter ego, calling into doubt that the continued use of the fake identity was an oversight.
And then we were off to the races.
In a related posting, Umhofer described the column as “nasty.” I didn’t expect her to like the column, but all I did was recount an activity that she admitted she had engaged in. To choose that word indicates she wanted the column to be seen as a biased attack. I invite you to go back and look at it again.
Anyway, the reaction of Umhofer’s friends and supporters was unfortunately all too characteristic, which is to go on the attack when faced with facts and information they don’t like and that don’t suit their own particular biases. A good number of people – apparently Redwood City abounds in legal and constitutional scholars – attacked Hale for blocking Umhofer in the first place, describing it in scurrilous terms from illegal to really, really mean. It should be noted that Hale never blocked Ann Marie, so there’s that.
Turning the debate into one over blocking is a classic bait and switch tactic on social media. I guess they view that as preferable to acknowledging Umhofer had no business creating a fake identity. Indeed, some people were outraged that I’d ignored the real issue of Hale’s blocking. I didn’t, of course. It’s right there in the column. By the way, after the column posted, I was immediately blocked from the Ann Marie Facebook page. Incidentally, there also is speculation that Umhofer used another fake identity. I asked her about that in an email and she has not responded.
There are some interesting issues afoot here about the collision point between the public’s right to interact with a public official and a person’s right not to be the endless object of harassment, insults and invective. I don’t know how this sorts out and it’s certainly not settled law. It’s an issue we’re going to dive into in Climate, for no other reason than to add some facts to the wave of opinions that have been generated in reaction to this little example.
I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m astonished that blocking became the main focus point and that the same people who raised this issue glossed right over the fact that Umhofer created a fake identity just so she could continue to attack Hale.
Beyond that little sideshow, there was the usual hoo-ha that I’m a shill and that I’m only running interference for Hale and that Climate is all about some set of interests that are dark and sinister. One poster very cleverly described it as “Climate Ragazine.” I should note the prior sentence was sarcasm – I don’t really think it was all that clever. These days, subtlety seems to be in low currency. And, as an aside, I can promise you that Hale doesn’t think I’m doing her any favors.
Some folks tried to post the column on the Facebook page of Redwood City Residents Say What, a repository of people who do not like Hale and like Umhofer, and a page that says it exists for residents to post their thoughts and comments. The column was deleted twice and when someone asked why, a page administrator said it was full of inaccuracies.
Of course, no one has come forward to point out these inaccuracies. I’m puzzled by the accusation. Had Umhofer responded to the detailed questions I posed to her, she could have corrected any inaccurate information I may have had.
This episode affirms some behavioral norms that are engaged in by these folks, based on a year of occasional observation, usually when they force themselves into my consciousness. They qualify as truisms – behavior you can count on – and some of them are tried and true political truisms, many of them in use by President Trump and his voluble supporters.
They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.
Whatever they accuse you of doing, they’re doing.
They see the world as enemies and friends, which justifies anything they want to do or say.
And, the one that has been most evident: They forgive their friends everything and their enemies nothing.
As an example of the last one, just imagine how these folks would have responded had Hale created a false identity and began posting criticisms of Umhofer.
Contact Mark Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org.