When well-meaning Alaska lawmaker Geran Tarr decided to join the collective of state legislators around the country considering increases in the minimum-wage, she turned to her official Facebook page to open a conversation on the topic.
What could possibly go wrong in these partisan and divisive times? How about everything?
Not long after the Russian Jack Democrat posted notice of a hearing to raise the minimum to $15, she says the trolls attacked. And not long after that, she posted this:
“We are finding that some of the hostile comments are from fake profiles of people who do not exist. I’ll be removing comments from the fake profiles.”
Tarr subsequently began doing so only to face a pretty quick accusation of censorship.
“Be careful,” Fairbanks’ John Henry warned in a comment, “the courts have already said that elected officials blocking people from social media accounts is a 1st amendment violation… Even if you don’t like what they have to say…”
Tarr subsequently backtracked on her earlier plan to enforce standards on her Facebook page and announced that she was closing comments on upcoming hearings on the proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage.
“Unfortunately a few bad apples ruin it for the whole bunch,” she wrote. “Many of the hostile comments are from fake profiles of people who are not registered to vote in Alaska and do not receive a PFD. I’ve deleted the comments from fake profiles. It’s really sad that this is a thing, but it is. So, comments closed for now. Please tune in. Please send an email for or against this measure to Rep.Geran.Tarr@akelg.gov. Facebook comments are not entered into the legislative record so if you want legislators to know how you feel please send an email.”
In response to a personal message on Facebook, Tarr said she didn’t know exactly how many comments came from “fake” Facebook users.
“I can ask my staff because I don’t have a count,” she wrote, “but I had spent about five hours Tuesday night and Wednesday morning to reply to comments only to find some were fake, and we just don’t have the capacity right now to monitor that.
“It’s a big deal because these fake profiles write a bunch of nasty things and misinformation and get an entire thread started based on misinformation. It’s pretty disappointing, and I don’t know if you or people you know do this kind of thing, but it’s just a disappointment as a legislator because I really want to engage with people and I will take the time to reply to each person, but this is just nonsense.”
She did not explain how her staff determined which Facebook accounts were real and which were fake. The two are not always easy to tell apart. The Facebook page was today reporting 183 comments had been posted. There were 24 still showing on the page, 10 of those being responses from Tarr.
Legal standards on what public officials can and cannot do on social media are not yet fully established, but the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in January extended First Amendment protection to people commenting on the Facebook pages of public officials as Henry noted.
The ruling came in the wake of a decision by a local Virginia politician to block the comments of a constituent “because of his allegation of governmental corruption constitutes black-letter viewpoint discrimination,” the Richmond, Va.-based court ruled.
The Court noted that although Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall was using her page for both public and private communications – “such as her affection for the German language or pride in becoming an organ donor” – the page was primarily devoted to government functions.
As such, it constituted a “public forum,” the court concluded, “and the Supreme Court recently analogized social media sites, like the Chair’s Facebook Page, to ‘traditional’ public forums, characterizing the internet as ‘the most important place (in a spacial sense) for the exchange of views.’ An ‘exchange of views’ is precisely what Randall sought—and what in fact transpired—when she expressly invited ‘ANY Loudoun citizen’ to visit the page and comment ‘on ANY issues,’ and received numerous such posts and comments.”
Once that door is opened, the court ruled, a government official can’t close it to try to keep out the people from whom she doesn’t want to hear.
The Virginia case is not the only one trying to deal with the thorny issues of social media in these partisan times, but it is, according to the Knight First Amendment Institute, “the first court of appeals ruling on whether the First Amendment applies to government-run social media sites.
“In May 2018, a federal trial court in New York held in a case brought by the Knight Institute that President Trump’s blocking of critics from his Twitter account violated the First Amendment. The Trump administration has appealed that decision, and the case is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.”
No lawsuits have been filed in Alaska in efforts to control how politicians and government officials use social media as public forums although many are deep into social media.
Lawsuits are costly. The Virginia case was supported by the Knight Insitute with help from chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, New York, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina and West Virginia.
The Alaska ACLU has been active on what might, in some ways, be considered the opposite side of this issue. It is involved in a lawsuit against newly elected Republic Gov. Mike Dunleavy that contends an “assistant attorney general was terminated for blogging about her own personal political views, which differed from the new administration’s.”
As the Alaska ACLU notes, the Supreme Court has several times held that the First Amendment offers protection for public employees wishing to comment on matters of public interest, but social media is playing havoc with all the old rules by shifting the platform on which American democracy was built.
It is one thing to hold views and another to build a stage from which to spread those views far and wide. Costs historically limited almost everyone, including public employees, from building the infrastructure to push their political views, but the internet changed everything.
Her lawsuit against the state hinges on how much protection the First Amendment affords employees who serve at the will of the governor. The governor needs no cause to fire policymakers. He can send them packing if he simply dislikes the way they dress, but there is a debate as to whether assistant AGs are policymakers.
On the left, Matt Buxton at the Midnight Sun argues, that if Dunleavy had “taken the time to understand Bakalar’s work (as I have from time to time during stories) instead of obsess over her Twitter account, they’d know she’s a hard-as-nails attorney who doesn’t let a single ounce of her personal political beliefs seep into her filings. She’s gone to bat plenty of times for the (former Gov. Sean) Parnell administration and undertook the effort to knock the salmon habitat initiative off the ballot, successfully getting its most egregious parts struck from the version that appeared on the ballot.”
On the right, Suzanne Downing at MustReadAlaska contends, that Bakalar was a big part of the reason the initiative intended to block almost all mining Alaska got on the ballot in the first place. After deeming the petition unconstitutional, Downing writes, “Bakalar and her boss, former Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, allowed the group a ‘do over’ and even coached them in rewriting the language so the petition could be deemed constitutional.”
The initiative failed at the ballot box.
Politically, there is little doubt, that Bakalar was more closely aligned with the liberal philosophies of Walker than the conservative philosophies of Dunleavy, but the real issue doesn’t seem to be as much with her political beliefs as her ability to spread them.
Her blog, Downing wrote, is “widely read throughout the Juneau liberal intelligentsia and government establishment,” and on that she and Buxton are in agreement. The issue with Bakalar appears to come down not to what she believes but to how far she spreads those beliefs.
In some ways, the issue echoes the difference between yelling fire in your living room or in a crowded theatre, the latter being the point at which the U.S. Supreme Court once held free speech ended.
But Constitutional scholars agree there remain limits to free speech both on the part of the public and on the part of government employees, who have less latitude than John Q. Public. Bakalar and Tarr to some extent frame the debate.
The Bakalar case involves the right of public employees to incite. The Tarr incident involves the authority of public officials to control.
Tarr said she firmly believes people have the right to express their opinions, but she took issue with their wasting her time.
“…I think we have to be (as) accessible as possible,” she messaged. “Nastiness bums me out, but people have a right to not like what I’m doing so…it’s just a time issue.”
In this case, she said, “I spent the whole evening responding (only) to find out some (comments) were fake. It was just like, ‘OK, well, we are so in crunch time now. I just don’t have the time.”
She planned, she added “to go back and respond to everyone. I think it’s especially important to show respect and kindness, even in response to nastiness, because sometimes people have bad info and once they know otherwise they are nice or sometimes they just need to vent and they haven’t had an experience where a politician listened to them and I want them to know I’m listening.”
But everyone loses, she argued, if lawmakers are wasting time responding to internet trolls instead of their constituents. And there is no argument a lot of time can be wasted responding to internet trolls. It is a problem in many public forums and at many media websites.
Fake Facebook users might be part of the problem, but a lot of the Facebook posters stirring things up are very real. There is also a lot of misinformation, but a study published in January at Science Advances concluded that even the hotbed of “fake news” might not get that hot.
“…Sharing fake news was quite rare during the 2016 U.S. election campaign,” the Princeton and New York University authors reported. “This is important context given the prominence of fake news in post-election narratives about the role of social media disinformation campaigns.”
The public perception, however, is decidedly different, and Tarr pointed to a need to try to clean up some of the Facebook discussion. She specifically identified efforts to launch a civic engagement website called “Arizona Voices” to help lawmakers in the Southwest state stay in touch with the views of registered voters.
When it launched in 2014, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett told a news conference that the website was “going to allow people 24/7 to weigh in on how public policy is being developed here in the state, here at the Legislature,” Phoenix’s KTAR-TV reported.
Republican Sen. Bob Worsley, the founder of Skymall Magazine, was the fundraiser for the idea, said KTAR, which reported his observations “that there needed to be improvements in how constituents reach their legislators. For example, his assistant took some 200 phone calls Wednesday in support or opposition of different bills.”
“I did have legislation my first term to push a platform like this one from Arizona,” Tarr said. “I’m thinking of trying again because now that these fake profiles are an issue we may need a new system. What’s great about this (platform) is it’s like Facebook, but you have to be a registered voter to weigh in and then it sends legislators comments from their constituents. It would be awesome!”
Arizona Voices appears to now be dead. The website address – azvoices.gov – no longer works. The KTAR story said, “the site was developed by Mind Mixer, an Omaha, Neb.-based firm that works to promote civic engagement online.”
An old link to azvoices/mindmixer.com redirects to Google and a link that says “Arizona Voices is the first statewide civic engagement platform of its kind, where you can rate pending legislation and discuss issues that impact Arizona.”
A click on that link leads to a mindmixer.com website saying “this project does not exist.” The page then redirects to the Mind Mizer website with a pitch for a “community engagement platform (that) has helped more than 1,300 organizations start local conversations with people who care about the places they live.”
In an editorial about AZVoices, the news organization questioned how it ended up with a “.gov” URL.
“….Despite the .gov domain name, AZVoices.Gov is not a government entity. It is controlled by the Arizona Voices Institute, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and ‘non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing public participation in the legislative process. AZVoices.Gov was created by the Institute as a way to directly empower and collectively encourage citizens to propose solutions for the challenges faced by Arizona,’ according to the website,” the news organization reported.
“According to the General Services Administration, ‘in order to maintain domain name integrity, eligibility for .gov domains is limited to qualified government organizations and programs. Having a managed domain name such as .gov assures your customers that they are accessing an official US Government Site.’ It is unclear how a private, non-profit organization qualified for a .gov domain.”
AZVoices appears to have disappeared shortly thereafter to be replaced by azvoices/mindmixer.com. The Arizona News Network suggested the entire effort looked a lot like an attempt at public manipulation.
“Worsley, who made his millions selling things to people they didn’t need, was behind the fundraising effort to bring the site to Arizona voters,” the editorial said.
“After it was up and running, Worsley claimed that he was already using data from the site to make decisions. The data gathered from users of the site developed by Mind Mixer, an Omaha, Neb.-based firm, includes users age, gender and legislative district.
“Many are asking why does it matter if a voter is young or old or female or male? How does that help a representative?
“The information is useful only in that it helps them sell their bad ideas. The demographics, used by any good marketer, will shape the narrative a lawmaker puts forth to sell voters on everything from higher taxes to loss of personal freedoms.
“Lo and behold, Karl Gentles, President of Arizona Voices – the group behind the site, is also the owner of Karl Gentles Public Relations (KGPR). According to KGPR’s website, they provide ‘strategic communications to corporate and nonprofit organizations, banking and financial institutions, healthcare, and others…. To produce deliberate outcomes, we draw upon our extensive experience in marketing, public affairs, brand strategy, event development, advertising, and execution and other marketing and public relations disciplines.'”
Argue among yourselves
Anchorage resident John Lime III, an opponent of raising the minimum wage, admitted similar concerns about Tarr’s motives made him suspicious of her decision to solicit comments about the minimum wage on Facebook. Lime believes a higher minimum would hurt young people looking for summer work and small businesses.
“I think she was butthurt when I made comment about the town hall meetings cutting people off,” he said in a Facebook message. “Or my comment about telling everyone I know to vote every one of them leeches out of Juneau (and the ones out of DC).”
Lime said he noticed that among the comments that disappeared was one claiming “the content she shares there was only part of the reasoning for the national minimum wage being set. I forget the specifics, but it basically called her out for sharing only half the information. That post is gone.”
He wasn’t sure what else disappeared, adding that “I would like to know how she figured out they were fake profiles if that’s what they were.”
The blow-up sort of defines where politics are in the country today. Lime doesn’t trust Tarr. Tarr doesn’t trust some of the people posting on Facebook. And too many discussions of public policy have a bad habit of abandoning the legitimate questions of costs and benefits in favor of name-calling.
In this case, the reality is there are legitimate arguments for raising the minimum wage, and there are equally legitimate arguments for leaving it alone. As reporter Kimberly Amedeo notes at The Balance, a higher minimum wage can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing.
“Wages cannot be so high that they reduce a company’s ability to keep labor costs low during a recession,” she wrote. “In setting a minimum wage, the government has to find the sweet spot between protecting workers and giving businesses the flexibility they need to remain competitive.”
Alaska’s sweet spot? Nobody has tried to identify it, and even if they tried, it might not mean much.
“…The research evidence of what actual minimum wage requirements do to job numbers goes both ways; many studies find that minimum wage laws reduce employment, and many other studies on the exact same laws find they have little or no effect on jobs,” reports the UCLA Anderson Review. “Some 60 years and hundreds of research papers from prestigious universities, government agencies and private organizations have created little consensus on the subject, academic or otherwise.”
Where to set the minimum wage in Alaska, or in most other states, is a question with no definitive answer surrounded by people sure they know the answer. If you have it, email Tarr.