LEWISTON — At least two anonymous Facebook pages are making waves in this year’s municipal election, tricking some voters into believing things that are not true and sowing discord.

One page calls itself “Lewiston Friends of CMP” and lavishly praises much-maligned Central Maine Power Co., while the other touts itself as “Lewiston Undivided” and devotes most of its posts to over-the-top support for Democrats.

With clumsy rhetoric and penchant for propaganda, both pages are cloaked in secrecy. They differ from other social media groups and pages devoted to Lewiston in their unexplained anonymity. Nothing on either of the pages indicates why the page creators would have any reason to worry about public exposure of their identities.

Democratic mayoral contender Mark Cayer said the secret manipulators behind the pages are deliberately inflaming passions and “trying to get people really mad” instead of fostering honest debate on the issues. He called it a terrible trend for Lewiston politics.

Republican mayoral hopeful Tim Lajoie said he has seen “plenty of Facebook posts — from absurd to hilarious to downright nasty” — over the years and this year’s campaign is “no different.”

He said he has seen posts from Lewiston Undivided that attack him and others, but isn’t sweating it.

“It’s Facebook,” he said, “where plenty of misleading ‘news’ can be found.”

“I have always been disciplined when it comes to staying focused with the task at hand so, honestly, I don’t pay much attention to this stuff,” Lajoie said.

“I don’t interact with it, share it, etc. Most, like me, will ignore it and not give it an audience — if they even see it — because there are more pressing issues facing our families in Lewiston.”

Online meddling in Lewiston’s elections is not new. Two years ago, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party secretly created a fake online newspaper, the Maine Examiner, that promoted stories to bolster Republican Shane Bouchard’s mayoral prospects by taking shots at Ben Chin’s progressive campaign.

What’s different this time is that the two secretive sites are not pretending to be neutral. They tout themselves as strong supporters of Cayer.

Yet Cayer said they are undermining, not helping, him. That is their whole point, he added.

For instance, an Oct. 1 Lewiston Undivided post stated: “If you agree with us about reasonable restrictions on deadly assault weapons and high capacity clips, allowing taxpaying immigrants who contribute to our quality of life to vote even if they don’t have citizenship yet, and making all businesses and schools carbon neutral by 2030 then Mr. Cayer is your best bet. There is no chance any of the other candidates will support these common sense ideas. That is why we are supporting Democrat Mark Cayer. He will tackle these top issues facing Lewiston today!”

Cayer responded quickly, saying: “My campaign is about bringing Lewiston together. We should all contribute to discussion of the issues we face. I want to focus on the voices of Lewiston residents, not anonymous websites and groups who seek to tear us apart. Please ignore the noise.”

The CMP Friends group maintains it consists of “grassroots citizens and friends in support of CMP’s clean energy superhighway to combat climate change, the New England Clean Energy Connect!”

Lewiston Undivided claims to be run by a group of administrators organized “to fight racism, restrict gun ownership, pursue social justice for mistreated immigrants, and elect candidates who pledge to follow this agenda. We are non-partisan but lean Democrat.”

But in neither case is anyone specifically identified. Both pages have consistently refused to disclose who operates them.

A former Republican City Council member, Robert Reed, posted last week on the Lewiston Undivided page he had “finally figured out who owns this page.”

“Folks, would it confuse you to know that this page was set up by a conservative?” Reed asked. “A giant hoax to make Dems look bad by overly stating what they stand for? To get you thinking they hate conservatives that you might support.”

Reed, who could not be reached for comment, said he has friends who work in social media for a living who were able to figure out the page creator’s identity by tracking IP addresses. It is unclear how they could have done so.

Someone posting as Lewiston Undivided called Reed’s assertion “more false news from Republican trolls” and insisted he felt “quite insulted to be accused of being ‘conservative,’ which really means racist and bigoted these days.”

Over time, Cayer and Reed have not been the only ones to accuse the pages of sowing dissension under false pretenses.

Many people have raised questions about who’s behind the pages, speculating who might have some reason for putting in the time needed to churn out new posts for months.

Who they are, though, remains a mystery. Facebook itself will not identify page owners.

Whoever operates the CMP page said they are not partisan, simply offering “single issue support” of CMP’s controversial New England Clean Energy Connect project that would build an array of new electricity equipment in Lewiston.

In a private message Tuesday, the anonymous page owner wrote, “We as a group of concerned citizens are not ready to share our names yet, but we will be soon with a formal announcement.”

“We support anyone, Republican, Democrat or others who support the NECEC. Since when is non-partisan support of clean energy considered damaging to Lewiston politics?” he or she said. The page owner insisted the page is issue-focused and rarely even mentions politicians, though the page has pinned a post endorsing Cayer so that it’s the first thing anyone visiting the site sees.

Yet the posts on both the Lewiston Undivided and the CMP Friends pages are, Democrats say, almost certainly run with the intention of undermining Cayer’s campaign by stating something supposedly supportive of Cayer that is crafted to actually be negative.

One recent Lewiston Undivided post purported to attack Lajoie for comments he made over the summer calling on Portland to take care of new refugees.

Lajoie said on his own Facebook page Lewiston residents “have opened their hearts and wallets for two decades — we have done our share. It’s wrong to ask us to fix Portland’s problems before we fix our own. We have major crime, drug, homelessness and economic problems” and need “to take care of our own, now,” not deal with more refugees.

The next day, on Aug. 12, the Lewiston Democratic Party criticized Lajoie for issuing “another xenophobic rant.” It insisted that immigrants aren’t problems. “They are the heart and soul of our community,” the party wrote on its Facebook page.

The two offered sharply contrasting views on an issue that many residents have strong feelings about — the sort of back-and-forth policy debate that is the lifeblood of American elections. Both Lajoie and the city Democrats identified themselves and embraced their own words.

Then, this month, Lewiston Undivided weighed in.

Reaching back to August, it shared the Democratic Party post and offered its own commentary.

Seemingly criticizing Lajoie’s position, it said, “We agree this is xenophobic.”

Then it continued, “Lewiston needs asylum seekers and refugees to do the jobs people here refuse to do at minimum wage, which helps the box stores remain profitable and stimulates the economy.”

“Trying to say that we should focus on other people and their perceived ‘problems’ first is very selfish and most likely borne out of prejudice and racist views,” Lewiston Undivided said. “It is refugees and asylum seekers who are the heart and soul of Lewiston, not anyone else.”

That “not anyone else” is like a giant flashing red sign trying to make the false claim that Cayer and the Democrats are only interested in helping immigrants and “not anyone else.”

The only post accusing Lajoie of “prejudice and racist views” is the one by Lewiston Undivided.

Cayer said the page often operates that way, trying to make it seem like he thinks Lewiston is chock full of older, white racists — an assertion he strongly denies.

He said these days he tries to ignore Facebook pages seeking to rile up residents. He worries that paying attention to them closely will rob him of the time he needs to knock on doors and talk to the people who are going to the polls.

But, Cayer said, he remains concerned — not just for his own candidacy but for what this new social media tactic means for politics generally.

It is not hard to find evidence of how pervasive and unsettling fake social media accounts and posts can be.

The Senate Intelligence Committee — which counts U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, both of Maine, among its members — issued a report this month on the way Russia employed social media in a widespread bid to help get Donald Trump elected president in 2016.

The report said that “social media has created new virtual venues for American participation” in politics and “a new channel for direct democratic engagement with elected officials, media representatives and fellow citizens around the world.”

The flip side, though, is that “the same system of attributes that empowers these tools and their users to positively increase civic engagement and constructive dialogue lends itself to exploitation, which frequently materializes as the dissemination of intentionally false, misleading, and deliberately polarizing content.”

All of that is on display in Lewiston this fall.

Editor’s note: Kiernan Majerus-Collins, the writer’s son, is chairman of the Lewiston Democratic Party and a Ward 3 candidate for the Lewiston School Committee. 

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