BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - United Cajun Navy (UCN) spokesman Brian Trascher says ongoing hearings in which UCN president Todd Terrell is seeking permanent restraining orders against eight individuals who allegedly used a Facebook group to make claims against the organization are the first of many efforts taken to ensure online protections are in place for nonprofits and businesses against alleged cyberbullies.
“This is definitely just the first step. There’s more than likely going to be followup criminal proceedings, possible civil proceedings, [and] additional parties. Some members [that] this group has slandered have yet to file their own [temporary restraining orders],” said Trascher. “We really believe this can be a landmark case. There’s been a lot of attention on cyberbullying nationally, mostly involving children, mainly teenagers and younger children but what we’re demonstrating is that it can happen in the adult world, business world, and in this case the nonprofit world.”
An informational section for the Facebook group in question, Cajun Navy Wiki Leaks, states it exists to “expose some of the fraudulent activities going on in the storm community.” The section goes on to state “all posts made must be backed up by facts.”
However, Terrell testified for several hours during back-to-back court hearings Thursday, Dec. 5 that potentially stolen and falsified evidence was posted by members of the group to dissuade potential volunteers and donors, effectively leaving UCN “dead in the water.”
“I think we’ve been able to demonstrate a lot of malicious intent. They have called lots of members of the media spreading false allegations. They have called partners that the United Cajun Navy has partnered with in different disaster zones and spread false allegations. There’s been a couple of events that UCN was going to be apart of that the organizers ended up backing out of, not necessarily because they believe the allegations, but they don’t want to be apart of the drama,” claims Trascher. "Everything that this group has done maliciously to try to stifle the efforts of the United Cajun Navy actually puts lives in danger.”
The eight defendants, identified in courts documents as Deborah Kay Asuncion, Thomas Bever, Denise Marguerite Brunson, Kip Coltrin, Jeremy James Ellis, Gloria McCracken Godwin, Melissa Warren Harcus, and Alice Johnson, are not expected to be the only parties having to explain their side to a judge, however.
Trascher tells WAFB he expects Facebook will be pulled into future proceedings.
"We believe that there are going to be further motions made that bring Facebook as a company into this situation, but right now we had to remove the threat. We believe there has been a legitimate threat...That had to be the first order of business here,” said Trascher.
The news comes as social media platforms are under fire for what some users describe as lackluster and confusing policies about harassment and the spread of misinformation.
“There’s been dozens and dozens of attempts to report individual posts. The group itself, which is called Cajun Navy Wiki Leaks, is the mechanism of misinformation in this case. There have been dozens and dozens of reports to Facebook about that group itself being fraudulent, spreading false information, spreading hate speech, putting harassment, bullying, and all that [on the page]. So far, to my knowledge every time the report came back that they didn’t violate [Facebook’s] community standards. Facebook has removed several dozens of individual comments made because they did deem them against their community standards, but has neglected to remove the group even though it has demonstrably shown many instances of maliciousness and violating what usually violates Facebook’s community standards by their own admission," said Trascher. “Because of the way the platform works you can set up as many fake accounts with fake names and fake pictures which we have evidence of several of these defendants doing and post whatever you want. In some cases, people think that absolves them of liability. You have to walk a line between what’s free speech, but at the same time, there’s been an established law on slander and libel with regards to demonstrating malicious intent. Cyberstalking and cyberbullying are new frontiers that are evolving every day. I think that social media platforms have been under a lot of pressure to do a better job policing."
Trascher says he’s hopeful UCN’s situation can become an opportunity for Facebook to revisit its harassment policies with input from businesses and nonprofit organizations which can often be derailed by comments from other users whether those comments are founded or not.
"I think one thing Facebook could do better is having some consistency with what does and does not to their admission violate their community standards, or at least do a better job explaining rather than giving blanket answers about what does and doesn’t violate community standards. We’ve shown many instances where one individual will make a comment that goes unchecked and another individual makes the same comment and that violates. In other words, they’re contradicting themselves. I think it’s because there is a lot of [artificial intelligence] in the algorithm in regards to how they make those determinations. They probably get millions of them an hour. They have billions of users. But, if they could come up with a way maybe bring a little more human element into judgment, maybe even have a little Facebook court where they have humans reviewing some of these more egregious comments, I think that would be helpful,” said Trascher.
The defendants were unable to comment on any of Terrell’s testimony Thursday and are expected to address the claims for the first time at the next hearing Thursday, Dec. 12.