Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it’s causing, and what we should do about it.
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When Casie Tomlin opened her mailbox on July 17 in the ultra-affluent enclave of Highland Park in Dallas on Saturday, July 17, she saw a FedEx envelope. Inside was a letter from an activist group called Dallas Justice Now.
The letter was not your typical missive from a social justice organization. Rather than calling for defunding the police or protesting racial discrimination, the letter called on “white liberals and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement to make sacrifices to open up opportunities for students of color,” by signing an online pledge not to send their children to Ivy League Schools.
If they refused to sign, the letter warned, the group would publicly shame them by publishing their names on its website.
Tomlin’s neighbors in the staunchly Republican area also got the letter, and soon the local conservative Facebook group lit up with posts about how scary the letter was and how they couldn’t believe “the left” would do something like this.
The story spread to local right-wing media outlets, before being picked up by international media, with credulous reports in outlets like Canadian far-right website Post Millennial, British tabloid the Daily Mail, and Newsweek. On Wednesday night, the story was covered on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, America’s highest-rated cable news show.
“It’s the bigotry of no expectations,” Candace Owens, a conservative author, told Carlson. On Twitter, Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, laid the blame on critical race theory.
But back in Highland Pack, Casie Tomlin smelled a rat.
“Straight away I knew that it was fake,” Tomlin told VICE News.
And she was right. Dallas Justice Now is not a real social justice organization, but appears to be a hoax campaign designed to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. The group is linked to a right-wing PR company that works closely with the Republican Party.
But when Tomlin decided to speak out and question the veracity of the letter she received in the post, she was called a “racist Karen” and someone posted her personal details online.
But when she pointed out to her neighbors that the letter had been revealed to be a hoax, and that it was linked to a right-wing PR group, they didn’t believe her.
“The whole neighborhood is very, very well aware of [the reports of the campaign being a hoax] and we still have people that were messaging me and telling me: ‘No, this group is real because they have an African American on their website, so it’s real.’”
The text of the letter was also posted on PR Newswire, a site where you pay to publish press releases. The post contains the full pledge the group is asking people to make:
“As a white person with privilege both from my whiteness and my neighborhood I recognize the need to make sacrifices for the purpose of correcting hundreds of years of murder, slavery, discrimination, and lack of educational and economic opportunities perpetrated upon people of color. I understand that access to top schools is a key component in economic and social advancement. Therefore, I commit that my children will not apply to or attend any Ivy League School or US News & World Report Top 50 School so that position at that school is available for people of color to help correct historical wrongs. If I do not have children under 18 then I will commit to encouraging my white privileged friends, neighbors, and family members with children to sign the pledge and holding them accountable until they do so.”
The press release quotes someone named Michele Washington as a spokesperson for the group, but there is very little evidence that this person exists.
The only online reference to a person called Michele Washington living in the Dallas area was a Facebook profile created in October. The profile lacked a picture of the person or any other details about her life, beyond the fact she works for Dallas Justice Now.
The Facebook profile says Washington began working at the group in October 2020, even though the group’s website only came online in May 2021. Messages sent to Washington and several of her Facebook friends went unanswered.
When VICE News flagged the profile and the Dallas Justice Now page to Facebook, company spokesman Andy Stone said the company was looking into it. Hours later, the Michele Washington profile page was removed from the site.
After Tomlin received the letter in the post she decided to do some research. She attempted to contact the group but was unsuccessful. Then, she made a donation of $1, and received a receipt from a completely different company called “Painted Praise.”
Tomlin then contacted the company facilitating donations on the Dallas Justice Now website and asked to be put in touch with someone from the group. Dallas Justice Now responded in an email by calling Tomlin a “white supremacist” and claiming she was harrassing them.
But it didn’t stop there. The group then posted on Facebook about Tomlin’s complaints, calling her a “racist Karen” and saying: “Girl, if you are going to come at us just take off your klan hood and call us the n-word.”
The group also posted personal information about Tomlin, including details about a five-year-old DUI conviction.
The group then published a new press release specifically about Tomlin, repeating their baseless claim that she was a “white supremacist.”
Despite the obviously fake nature of the letter and the initial press release, the story gained traction in a publication called the Dallas City Wire, which is owned by conservative businessman Brian Timpone.
Timpone operates a network of “content farms” which the New York Times has linked to a national pay-for-play network of websites seeking to take the place of dwindling local news outlets.
The Dallas City Wire article quoted Michele Washington, but when Tomlin contacted the reporter who wrote the story to see if she had actually spoken to someone at Dallas Justice Now, the reporter asked Tomlin if she was the police and then refused to answer any other questions.
Tomlin wasn’t the only one looking into Dallas Justice Now.
A group of researchers based in Dallas, also looked into the group’s website. It quickly found links to Keep Dallas Safe, a group the Dallas Observer reports is “an organization run by a confirmed astroturfer.”
Astroturfing is the practice of hiding the real creators of a campaign or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.
Earlier this year, Keep Dallas Safe targeted candidates in the Dallas City Council election with false claims that they intended to defund the police.
Both Dallas Justice Now and the Keep Dallas Safe are linked to Arena, a PR firm that has worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Michigan Republican Party, and other right-wing politicians and campaigns.
When asked about the link with Dallas Justice Now, Arena confirmed it had begun to work on the campaign but claimed it stopped once it realized what was happening.
“Arena did not and would never support an activity of this type. We were working with a client and when we learned what their objective was, the project was terminated. Unfortunately, it appears someone from the group copied the original code containing a link to the abandoned ‘under construction’ website, which linked to our server,” Clint Brown, Arena’s chief operating officer told VICe News in an emailed statement.
Brown did not respond to follow-up questions about how the alleged code copying happened and asking him to identify the client carrying out the campaign. However, a report in Dallas has uncovered links between Arena and numerous astroturfing campaigns in other states.
VICE News contacted Dallas Justice Now on Thursday to discuss the claims about its bogus origins, and hours later the group issued another press release, this time lashing out at the “unfounded reports” and “conspiracy theories” about the group, specifically mentioning the Dallas Observer report and once again targeting Tomlin.
The group did not respond to follow-up questions.
Despite the revelations that Tomlin and local media have made about who is really behind this group, Tomlin’s neighbors continue to believe the campaign is real, which is making Tomlin concerned about her own safety and the safety of her family.
“I’m definitely still worried,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know what [the people behind the campaign] are capable of doing. It’s definitely scary because I believe there are very powerful people behind this with a lot of money and if they’re willing to create a fake social justice group then they’re also willing to go through a lot more to get me to be quiet and stop talking.”