Spoofing? That would be creating a website as a hoax to fool web users into thinking that the website has been created by a different person or organization. The Russians are doing it right now, crafting fake news sources, and running false new stories on them — then sharing those stories via social media to be shared and to mislead.
And, here in New Hampshire a site surfaced this spring with a timely name “Respect NH.” But who is behind the site? With a blossom of hope in a difficult time the site launched with a robust ad budget, pushing out sponsored “feel good” news stories, racking up 14,000 likes, and seeming to offer good vibes. “Respect New Hampshire works to unite communities around the values of tolerance, honesty, fairness and personal responsibility. We believe these values should apply to elected officials just as they apply to our everyday lives.” And, on the website, it says the same thing.
In July the site published a post on the economy saying “To provide greater certainty — and get more Granite Staters back to work — state lawmakers should repeal the automatic business tax hike now looming over small businesses across the state.” And it asked readers to sign a petition to do just that.
Next, it spoke out against the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, or the "Laurie List." A confidential list of police officers with credibility issues not to be called on for testimony in criminal cases. It went on to call for lower business taxes, and praised the business climate, this time saying “New Hampshire has made great progress over the years to create one of America’s best business climates. Raising taxes on businesses drags the state backwards, especially during an economic downturn — the time most economists agree is exactly the wrong time to increase taxes.”
It also profiled NH businesses, all concerned about business taxes, and then it slammed Manchester for trying to implement a mask mandate saying “With New Hampshire faring far better on COVID-19 than most states in the nation, imposing severe fines during an economic downturn shows some leaders are out of touch with reality — and don’t respect the extent to which Granite Staters have kept each other safe without strict mandates.”
The site went on to promote private schools for doing well as public schools were moving to on-line education saying “With programs that are friendly to businesses and beneficial to education for low income students, New Hampshire’s private schools are seeing a strong resurgence as students and parents realize the value of an in-person education.”
On Facebook, the tone shifted to Libertarian and anti-tax. And lots of calls for folks to sign up and join them.
But join who? Well, the fact that they won’t disclose their funding while advocating for political issues, and asking people to give them their information is worrisome. In New Hampshire does that constitute political advertising?
RSA 664:2 defines "political advertising" as "any communication…which expressly or implicitly advocates the success or defeat of any party, measure or person at any election.”
NH also says that political advertising must include:
the name and address of the candidate and his fiscal agent or chairman or, if it not from a candidate campaign;
The name and address of the treasurer of a political committee or natural person who is responsible for the advertising.
But while “Respect NH” takes clear positions on very political issues: anti-masking, anti-taxes, pro-private education, it urges readers to sign up for info, get involved, and informs them of bills. Yet, it won’t tell you who Respect NH is or who pays for it.
And, a little basic Google detective work seems to link the Respect NH effort to the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, self-described as “a non-partisan coalition working to increase individual freedom in New Hampshire. We do this by monitoring bills in the legislative sessions and encouraging private charity, a civil society, and citizen involvement.” That seems to sync.
Either way, to create a site, call for political action, weigh in on laws, taxes and education is not only unprofessional it is unethical — and it is the same cloaked tactic that Russian hackers are using right now to undermine our democracy. I have to believe that New Hampshire votes are smarter than that, yet 14,000 have fallen for this Trojan Horse. I find it even more unsavory that Respect NH used upbeat story telling in the time of a pandemic to lure folks in. Any organization that refuses to identity itself, share its members, or even tell you where the organization is located is not to be trusted — and we all need to ask harder questions about where this “information” is coming from, who is writing it, and who is paying for it.
Our Democracy is in the balance, and we all need to be better curators of our own information flow, and social media platforms need to do a better job of shutting down spoof sites. That would be something I can respect.