During the Fort Worth Report’s first reader advisory council meeting earlier this month, one member pitched a story about Council District 9 Darien George. She was concerned his past made him unfit for office.
Another member didn’t like the idea.
“Please,” the member said, “Don’t report on rumors.”
Before the Report could suss out the truth, George withdrew from the race. He stopped his campaign after he called another candidate, Jordan Mims, a profane name at the end of a forum April 12.
The outburst followed a series of social media posts that culminated in Mims saying this about George during his opening remarks at the forum:
“James Darien George should withdraw from this race. My vision for the City Council does not include an abuser,” Mims said.
George, president of an executive search firm, declined to speak with the Report on the record. (George offered a statement to the Report after this story published. Please see the note at the end of this story.) He explained his decision in a post on Facebook, one of the same social media sites he says Mims and a small group of people used to coordinate the assassination of his character.
“We believed that the ‘noise’ created from these false claims became insurmountable for our campaign. And, as a supporter, we recognize that many of you were being placed in a difficult position,” he wrote.
This campaign’s demise is another case study in how social media has filled the void left by the decline in local news and prompted another round of questions about whether the cost of distributing unverified information outweighs the benefits.
Local news’ demise, social media’s rise
Jared Schroeder said he’s experienced the void in local news as a resident of Rockwall, a Dallas suburb served by a weekly newspaper.
“There’s a ton of signs out there for local elections, but I have no idea what’s going on because there’s nowhere for me to get that information,” said Schroeder, who researches and writes about emerging technology as a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University. “Our paper does not really cover anything. There could be a tornado and like a week later they would publish ‘there might have been a tornado.’ I literally have to go to Facebook pages.”
According to a summary of research compiled by the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, more than 300 newspapers have closed since fall 2018.
The decline follows a decline in print advertising. It intensified during the financial crisis of 2008 and has accelerated in the years since then.
“So social media has been more than happy to step in,” Schroeder said.
But it doesn’t just provide people with the information they’re seeking; it provides people with a barrage of information of varying degrees of quality, including some outright falsehoods.
In days gone by, voters would have had to satisfy themselves in many cases with what the candidates said about themselves publicly or what a newspaper reported. Now, voters can find screenshots of ill-advised Tweets and red solo cup pictures of candidates posted to Facebook, Schroeder said.
In days gone by, people would have to schedule a meeting with their representatives to be heard. Now, social media connects them more immediately and more directly.
Both these changes can cause harm, given that there often isn’t someone vetting social media, he said.
For example, some representatives have turned what were once made-for-TV moments that journalists could vet before putting them on the nightly newscast or in the next day’s edition into social media moments that go straight to the public without any verification. He said these made-for-social-media moments can be self-serving rather than inform the voters.
“There’s a lot of, ‘If I say this and it goes viral on social media, that’s going to help me get elected’ or it could go the other way. ‘If I say this and it goes viral on social media, it’s going to destroy my opponent,’” Schroeder said.
Speech on social media moves differently, too, with hashtags and algorithms pushing like- minded users together to concentrate an idea.
This can cause harm when social media posts that are incorrect proliferate and can be impossible to scrub from the internet. A recent MIT study found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth.
“There’s a saying that a falsity can circulate around the world before the truth can even get its pants on,” Schroeder said.
Two residents’ social media experience
Fort Worth residents Barbara Clark-Galupi and Stacy Shores saw some of the same social media posts about George but came to decidedly different conclusions.
Clark-Galupi said she decided to believe the personal accusations made by George’s ex-wife on Twitter because of a separate post by her friend and business associate, Mindia Whittier. Whittier posted on Facebook that George had been disrespectful toward her and another friend during a meeting. Whittier wrote that the meeting was held to answer their questions about how George’s company had conducted a search for the city’s first chief equity officer.
“Just like anything in the #MeToo movement when one person had the balls to stand up and tell their truth about somebody in power and privilege, it gave courage to other people to do the same …,” said Clark-Galupi, who is a member of the Report’s Reader Advisory Council, a group set up to offer insights and support to the publication.
But Shores said she stayed up until 3 a.m. after reading the social media attacks to try to decide whether she should continue to support George.
She said she concluded that the youth of George and his ex-wife led them both to make poor decisions and that what convinced her to support him in the first place ultimately led her to continue supporting him. George and his current wife have an adopted biracial child. One of Shores’ children is biracial.
“And I know how adoption is these days. There’s no way on this earth that an adoption agency would hand over a baby to a man that they are making him out to be,” said Shores, a resident of Linwood neighborhood.
The two women’s opinions also diverge when it comes to the usefulness of social media.
Clark-Galupi said social media can be a tool the public uses to prod journalists to do their jobs. She said George’s ex-wife’s Twitter thread got sent to several campaign managers.
“Someone sought my advice with what to do with it, and I said, ‘You don’t touch it with a 10-foot pole from a campaign perspective, but hopefully we can push it out to journalist sources,” Clark-Galupi said.
Clark-Galupi said she did not work for any of the campaigns. She declined to say which campaign sought her advice.
The only publication to report on the allegations against George was the Fort Worth Weekly. The story, published before Monday’s forum, contained allegations from anonymous sources and information about a misdemeanor charge from 20 years ago of unlawfully carrying a firearm. The charge was dismissed against him after he completed probation.
“The powers that be and the Fort Worth way have an amazing knack of not reporting on things that are unfavorable to those in power,” Galupi said.
However, Shores said she saw posts that contained information she knew to be incorrect about George and felt he was being bullied.
“I saw the untruths unfolding right before my eyes, and that’s the part of social media that I think is so damaging, that anybody can say what they want to say and people will believe it, and I think that’s a tragedy because there’s no accountability for words on social media,” Shores said.
In an interview with the Report, Mims said he saw George’s ex-wife’s Twitter thread, too. He said he was then contacted on social media by women who had complaints against George. Mims said he believed how the women described their experiences with George but Mims said he didn’t take any additional steps to verify what they wrote him.
He said he had called in a post on Facebook before the forum for George to withdraw from the race.
“I felt like it would make more sense for me to ask in person and, if I didn’t say it in person, then I shouldn’t be saying it online,” he said.
Social media a new playbook for politicians, a new diet for voters
George was one of nine candidates vying to represent District 9. The district is currently represented by Ann Zadeh, who is running for mayor.
Records show George was third in raising the most money. He financed his campaign by loaning himself $10,000 and had raised a total of $30,400 as of April 1. The candidate who raised the most by that time was Elizabeth Beck at $102,859.18 followed by Jared Sloane who raised $31,010. Beck did not loan herself any money while Sloane loaned himself a total of $2,600 and part of the $31,010 he raised, or $4,250, was non-monetary (in kind) donations.
Some of George’s top contributors were Ken Schaefer, the president of Schaefer Advertising who is also a member of the Report’s Reader Advisory Board; Sandra McGlothlin, a partner at Empire Roofing; and Grant Coates, president of the Miles Foundation Inc. Neither Schaefer nor McGlothlin could not be reached for comment. Through an email response to the Report, Coates wrote that he supported George, who he serves with on the board of directors of Read Fort Worth, because George is passionate about education and has experience working with Fort Worth ISD and city employees.
“Politics is messy, so it’s not surprising that people attacked him,” Coates wrote. “What was surprising was that his opponent’s supporters hit him with scandalous allegations that were hard to disprove. You often see these kinds of attacks in the national races, but usually not on the local level.”
George spent the bulk of the money he raised on Murphy Nasica, a political consulting firm in Austin that counts Texas Gov. Greg Abbott among its many clients. He paid the firm $25,373.43, according to his campaign spending reports.
Both Schroeder, the SMU professor, and Murphy Nasica President Craig Murphy said candidates have long struggled with how to respond to campaign attacks. Shroeder said social media makes answering that question more urgent.
“If your neighbor is throwing trash on your lawn, the first time you might just let it slide. But if it continues, there might come a time where you need to do something about it. Does that mean you call the cops? Do you build a higher fence? Does that mean you throw it all back? Does that mean you throw your own trash on his lawn?” Murphy wrote to the Report in an email. “There is no hard-and-fast rule.”
Schroeder agreed the playbook for how candidates’ use social media is still being written.
And, in an analogy fit for a Tweet, he posited another about how social media is changing people’s information diet:
“It’s become maybe a little less nutritious, but it’s still food, and they are still consuming it,” he said.
This story was updated on April 21 to correct campaign finance information.
This story was updated on April 22 to include this statement George provided to the Report:
“Social media allows people with a biased agenda to push out false and slanderous accusations. For the record, the accusations by my former wife are completely and unequivocally false. My ex-wife, along with extreme activists … could care less about the truth but rather would spread false accusations without any verification. They have their own agenda and from my personal experience, will say and do anything to further that agenda. Social media allows that to happen quickly, with no repercussions.”
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.