Jackson County

Ocean Springs’ Facebook page was trolled during a state flag discussion

This screenshot shows a Facebook Live video of the Ocean Springs Board of Aldermen meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.
This screenshot shows a Facebook Live video of the Ocean Springs Board of Aldermen meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.

The city has not removed comments on a Facebook Live video of its Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday night that include alt-right and white supremacist terms, as well as profanity, after a private group on Facebook took responsibility for some of the comments made involving a “couch.”

The city streams all of its Board of Aldermen meetings on Facebook so residents can watch from home.

On Tuesday, Facebook commenters said they were there for an “auction” as members of the predominantly black Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church and the Mississippi Rising Coalition, a nonprofit that fights for minority rights, asked Mayor Shea Dobson to remove the state flag that flies at City Hall. The state flag features the Confederate battle emblem.

Dobson told the Sun Herald, “You want me to delete comments because someone is talking about an auction?”

There are more than 450 comments on the video, and many of them appear to have hidden meanings.

The most popular term used in the comments was the word “couch” and the Sun Herald counted more than 200 instances when it was used.

Here is what people were saying on the public post:

  • The NAACP? the National association at couch production?
  • Whats the current bid on the couch?
  • The God emperor would not be pleased with no couches.
  • Has the auction finished?
  • I get the impression these people have never even sold a couch before.
  • When does the couch auction begin?
  • Is the auction for the couch?
  • 10 shekels for the couch
  • How much for the grand am w 24 inch wheels? Also does it come with a set of gold Teef? And i want some pigs feet, kool aid and hog jowels n grits!

Members of the alt-right group are known to use language or symbols to replace racist words so the messages or comments aren’t flagged or removed by moderators. The group is known for developing its own code words.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said they were not aware of the term “couch” being used as a code word by the alt-right. Curley Clark with the Jackson County NAACP also said he was not familiar with the term.

David Ferrell of Ocean Springs called the Sun Herald on Thursday afternoon and said he is responsible for the comments on the post that include a couch or a Pontiac Grand Am.

Ferrell said he is part of a Facebook group of 75,000 members who frequently troll live videos, asking people about a couch for sale or a Pontiac Grand Am for sale.

“What happened the other day has nothing to do with the flag,” Ferrell said. “If you put a live feed up, we’ll troll you, and we’ll ask you about a couch ... I can’t believe this many people are bent out of shape over it.”

Ferrell said the group is not alt-right and they meant no harm from the couch comments.

Ferrell would not tell the Sun Herald the name of the group.

Other terms were used that have published links to the alt-right and white supremacists. They include:

  • 88
  • Triple parentheses ((()))
  • God emperor

The number 88 is a reference to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. “88” translates to “Heil Hitler,” according to a guide published on The Daily Dot.

Two references to the number 88 were found in the comment section on the City of Ocean Springs’ post:

  • I’m here for the 88 Grand am?
  • Life hack: you can replace your worn front seats of a 1988 Grand am with any Palm Harbor trailer house staging couch.

The comment section also included triple parentheses, an alt-right code for Jews, New York Magazine reports.

Here are some instances of triple parentheses being used in the comments section of the city’s video:

  • ((()))
  • (((Pearls)))
  • (((Couch)))

God emperor is an alt-right term for President Donald Trump.

The Associated Press defines the alt-right as a political grouping or tendency mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism; a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States.

Other comments also included anti-feminist and racist remarks.

Ferrell said his group is not responsible for any of the alt-right code words posted in the comments.

“I didn’t have nothing to do with that,” he said.

‘I got attacked’

TNathan Fairley, an NAACP member who is on the board of the MRC, spoke to the Ocean Springs aldermen Tuesday night and was on the live feed. He’s seen the comments left on the video.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for them. These are not bots (robots) and they are making very specific comments while the meeting is going on,” he said. “I was required to give my name and address, to identify myself.”

He said when he looked up some of the profiles, some are out of state, he said. “You’d be asking yourself why are they commenting in this forum?”

“Why that night, when the citizens of Macedonia are talking to the board?” he said.

During the meeting Tuesday, Mayor Dobson complained to the group that he had spent time with people at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center after a recent meeting on the history of the flag and, “I got attacked by people and got called a white supremacist.”

Unsympathetic, Noelle Nolan-Rider, with MRC, said, “Have you received death threats Shea? Because some of us have received death threats and we just gave out our addresses.”

Clark said he does not use social media and has not seen the post and said, “I don’t want to dignify myself to have to respond to those types of postings on social media.”

Mayor’s response

The Sun Herald spoke with Dobson on Thursday morning.

“Is this news?” Dobson replied, when asked about the comments.

Dobson said the city has seen the comments and notified the police department, but the city has not deleted any of the comments.

“The First Amendment is something we have to take into account,” Dobson said. “Internet trolls do everything they can to get a rise out of people. We’re seeing a lot of people who will kind of start things in order to make news.”

Dobson said he had heard of the “couch” term being used by internet trolls.

“I’ve also been told that people go on livestreams and say the word ‘couch’ to get a rise out of people,” Dobson said.

“If it’s a legitimate or organized threat, then the necessary steps will be taken.”

Because the city of Ocean Springs and Board of Aldermen are public agencies, the First Amendment applies to their social media accounts. A federal judge in Virginia set a precedent when he ruled over the summer that a politician violated a constituent’s First Amendment rights when he banned the person from the politician’s personal Facebook page.

However, the judge said the politician still had the right to moderate comments, and it’s not always unconstitutional to block commenters.

“Government officials have at least a reasonably strong interest in moderating discussion on their Facebook pages in an expeditious manner,” the judge wrote. “By permitting a commenter to repeatedly post inappropriate content pending a review process, a government official could easily fail to preserve their online forum for its intended purpose.”

Residents concerned

Sun Herald reader Elizabeth Jones has been keeping up with the post and said she’s not pleased with the city’s response. At least two commenters also complained about the offensive comments.

“There are currently over 400 comments on the meeting video. I thought that the city would at least scrub the comments or make an official statement condemning them, but as of this morning the video is still on the official city Facebook page, none of the comments have been deleted, and there has been no public response made by city officials,” Jones said in an email.

“If the flag issue is truly about history and NOT race, as they (city officials) claim, then they should be quick to stand up and condemn racism. I haven’t seen any action in that direction to date.”

Facebook does not condone hate speech, and their team takes steps to moderate comments that violate the social media page’s terms of service, as detailed by the Guardian.

“We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial,” Facebook said in 2013. “We define harmful content as anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying).”

A list of prohibited categories of content can be found in Facebook’s Community Standards page.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_