WATERVILLE — Two anonymously run Facebook pages are leading attacks and making unsubstantiated claims surrounding the effort to recall Republican Mayor Nick Isgro over his use of social media.

The pages, called Waterville Resistance and the Waterville Republican Party, are run anonymously and are not affiliated with the city’s political party committees, despite posts indicating they are.

The rise of the pages, which collectively have more than 1,000 likes and followers, comes amid a rise in the circulation of false and misleading information, particularly on social media, across the country.

Earlier this year the Maine Republican Party’s executive director was outed for secretly operating an online newspaper that included such “fake news” stories about Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin.

In addition to attempts to sway the recall efforts, the Waterville Resistance aimed to influence the 2018 mayoral election. Both pages have weighed in on political news in the city for the last several months, often with misleading or mocking posts.

Messages sent to both pages were not returned this week. In an email, Isgro said the only Facebook page he administers is his public mayor page.

“Some constituents have shown me some of the material from Waterville Resistance and it seems to just be divisive rhetoric,” Isgro said. “My advice has been to stop following foolishness like this and tune in to something more positive.”

‘REPUBLICAN’ PAGE DEFENDS ISGRO

A Waterville Republican Party post.

On Monday on the Waterville Republican Party page, an allegation was posted that “out of town paid operatives” have been part of the effort to collect signatures for the petition to recall Isgro, who earlier this month came under fire for a tweet attacking Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivor David Hogg.

In its “About” section, the page says, “The Waterville GOP Committee is committed to working with and supporting candidates and policies that represent the every day people who make Waterville the incredible city that it is.”

But Lauren LePage, chairwoman of the city’s Republican committee, said in an email she wasn’t aware of the page and didn’t know who runs it. She did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the committee agrees with some of the views expressed on the page, including statements that those affiliated with Colby College are “elitists,” that the Morning Sentinel is “fake news” and that Bolshevism is at work in the recall effort.

Since the recall effort started, the page has fiercely defended Isgro, a former chairman of the party committee, including the hashtag #StandWithIsgro and posts accusing “leftist elites” and “out of town funding” of being behind the recall effort. Isgro said he was not aware of the Waterville Republican Party having an official Facebook page.

“Due to a political witchhunt from the radical left which includes the elitist in agenda driven City Council here in Waterville, Mayor Isgro has had his personal livelihood attacked (how he feeds his family),” reads a post from April 9. “This is the time to stand for free speech, and against the Bolshevik mob that wants to take over the City of Waterville led by none other than Karen Heck and her Colby College professor ilk like Hillary Koch. Thank you Mayor Nick Isgro for continuing to fight and stand strong for the rest of us!”

RESISTANCE PAGE DISAVOWED

The second page, Waterville Resistance, has purported to support the Democratic party and the recall effort but has been disavowed by both. It often makes posts that appear to support progressive initiatives in Waterville and around the country, especially on issues of race, gun control and environmental issues, but takes a mocking tone.

A Waterville Republican Party post.

“Resign or be recalled!” the page posted Monday along with a link to an editorial written by Hilary Koch, one of three Waterville residents who initiated the recall process. “Karen Heck, Bryan Adams, Doctor Professor Councilor Winifred Tate and Councilor Lauren Lessing are usually the ones in the news leading the Democratic movement to resist Trump and Isgro but it is important to recognize the intellectual powerhouse that Ms Hilary is!

“She never seeks the limelight but without her the recall papers to remove Mayor Isgro from office never would have been taken out since we needed 3 residents to start the process. Thank you Hilary for moving to Waterville recently to help make our community more inclusive and accepting!! We need more like you to move here to help advance our agenda.”

That page also claimed Monday that the petition effort is being lead by “paid professionals” and that “Republicans and supporters of the mayor are being extremely rude, vulgar and insulting to our dedicated civic minded signature team that drives all the way up from Portland and points in New Hampshire every day to help make Waterville a better place.”

Koch, in an email, said no paid operatives are working on the petition effort and that while anyone can take out and circulate a petition, only Waterville residents have been doing so.

“The Waterville Resistance page is not run by anyone associated with us, nor are they associated with the Waterville Democrats, or Waterville progressive groups,” she said. “It really looks to me like someone trying to work against us. And if you’ve read enough of the comments, even people who comment think it’s fake too.”

Isgro, however, said his supporters have taken the page seriously.

A Waterville Republican Party post.

“I’m not going to speculate on who may be behind it,” he said. “However, the posts my supporters have shown me are very critical of me and extremely supportive of the effort to recall the will of the people and our accomplishments.”

ATTACKS ON KOCH, OTHERS

Another post on the Waterville Republican Party page suggests Koch and former Waterville Mayor Karen Heck personally contacted Skowhegan Savings Bank to get the bank to fire Isgro.

“I did not, nor would I have done so,” Koch wrote. “I have no information (on how he lost his job.) What I do know to be true, is I had nothing to do with it.

“I have read people think I am not a real person, rather someone made up. I have read they need to dig up ‘dirt’ on me. All of this is promoted on and spread by the public Waterville Republican Party Facebook page.”

The Resistance claims to be tied to Democrats in the city, describing itself as “unified Democrats supporting local candidates for city and state office. Vote Democrat to #RESIST racism + bigotry + white privilege + assault weapons.”

A Waterville Resistance post.

But Matt Gorman, secretary for the Waterville Democratic Committee, said in an email it is not affiliated with Waterville Democrats. The committee also posted such a disclaimer on its Facebook page last week after the Resistance wrote a post encouraging people to come out to the Democratic caucus last Thursday.

“There is a very important meeting tonight of the Waterville Democrats at 6pm at the Waterville City Council Chambers! Don’t miss it. The hot topic on tonight’s agenda is the recall effort to #FireIsgro. We are looking for volunteers to supplement our teams from Portland and other parts of Maine and the Northeast US. See you there!”

After the Democratic committee disavowed the post and any affiliation with the group, it posted another message on its page.

“It is important to do these disclaimer announcements periodically so we can comply with ethics rules, Maine campaign finance law, and election laws about political parties coordinating with outside groups. Unlike Republicans we keep things on the up and up!” the post said.

“Rest assured, we all support the Democratic #Resistance agenda as #WatervilleTogether: remove Mayor Isgro from office, ban single use plastic bags, pass the housing committee to hold slumlords accountable, endorse carbon fees and dividend, fight climate change and fight bigotry in our community. Count on it.”

A Waterville Resistance post.

RECALL POSTS JUST THE LATEST

The posts are the latest on the pages, both of which date back months, but whose activity has increased over the last week following the controversy around the mayor.

The Resistance page also was involved in trying to influence the outcome of the mayoral election, having started over the summer, and would post frequently about Democratic candidate Erik Thomas. In October, it accused the Waterville Fire Department of being racist for not having any black firefighters on staff.

Other posts have called President Donald Trump a Nazi, promoted diabetes in cats as an important political issue and said the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” “is obviously a date-rape song that promotes sexual assaults.”

During the campaign last fall, Thomas said he was hesitant to address the page because he did not want to bring more attention to it.

“To be clear, this is not someone who supports me,” Thomas said at the time. “This is a supporter of the mayor who is pretending to be something he’s not just to divide our community and turn people against myself and others they do not agree with politically.”

In interviews Tuesday, Thomas and his campaign manager, Melissa Hackett, said it was hard to quantify how many votes may have been influenced by the page, but it continues to contribute to divisiveness in the community.

“A lot of people had an inkling this was a fake thing, but they weren’t entirely sure,” Thomas said. “That’s the dismaying part. Some of these are really smart people who couldn’t really tell the difference.”

‘THERE’S A LOT OF ANGER’

Paul Lavin, assistant director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said the commission has not received complaints about either page and even if they had, it is unlikely the commission, which oversees issues related to campaign finance, would be the appropriate outlet to address them.

Normally the commission responds to questions about the disclosure of campaign spending over $100, but the state law doesn’t apply to recall efforts.

“It’s just not something that’s covered,” Lavin said. “What provisions are there that apply to recall efforts regarding the disclosure of who’s spending money to influence the recall? That’s not something that’s covered.”

However, he said the situation is not unlike what took place in Lewiston, where an anonymously run online newspaper was writing negative stories about Democratic mayoral candidate Ben Chin last fall.

The Maine Democratic Party filed an ethics complaint in that case. The commission found that the newspaper, the Maine Examiner, was not in violation of campaign finance law but made no ruling on the truthfulness of the news it was publishing.

In Waterville, the Facebook pages have been reported twice to the Waterville Police Department in the last week, though Chief Joseph Massey said neither complaint rose to a criminal level.

“There’s a lot of anger out there about what’s going on and sometimes when you’re angry you’re more sensitive and more prone to feel something is threatening,” Massey said. “I don’t want to discourage anyone from reporting what they feel is a threat and would encourage anyone who feels threatened to report it.”

“In my conversations with people in Waterville, it’s become less about the page and more about people feeling unsafe or targeted for speaking out about all this,” Hackett said. “It’s all part of this culture of Facebook and anonymity and not being able to know for certain what’s fact or fiction and who is an ally and who is not. It’s increasingly encouraging people to not get involved at all because they don’t understand the lay of the land.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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