Update, 10/26: On Friday, October 19, an attorney for Wilkins sent a cease-and-desist letter to Marchant’s attorney, alleging that the accusation that Wilkins was behind the Facebook page is “utterly and willfully false, misleading, and slanderous” before threatening to sue for defamation. The following Monday, an attorney for Marchant responded by saying the statements are not defamatory, and “I trust I will receive no more threats from you or your client.” Also on Monday, “Democrats for Marchant” put out a new post, backed by at least $100 more in advertising spending. The page’s first activity since October 11th tied Lucas Marchant to Bernie Sanders and the “Our Revolution” movement.
Adding to the list of suspected trickery in politics, a candidate for a local race in South Carolina is suing over an anonymous Facebook group that he says is undermining his campaign.
The Greenville News first reported that Lucas Marchant, a candidate for the 13th Judicial Circuit Solicitor in upstate South Carolina, is suing to unmask who is behind the Facebook page “Democrats for Marchant.” The page ties Marchant, a candidate of self-described “conservative values” in a conservative district, to liberal opinions. Marchant says he disagrees with all of the posts on the “Democrats for Marchant” page.
Marchant is running against fellow conservative Walt Wilkins in this Greenville-area district. Both candidates have exclusively donated to Republicans throughout their political careers. Chip Felkel, a local political analyst in South Carolina, describes the district as “very conservative” and rates the chances of anyone associated with the Democratic Party winning the 13th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s race as “highly unlikely.”
An analysis by The Rachel Maddow Show found that the “Democrats for Marchant” page spent between $112 and $2,186 to promote approximately a dozen posts between June and October 2018, despite consistently negative feedback for the posts’ contents. Under South Carolina law, any direct or in-kind campaign contribution of $100 or more must be disclosed in campaign finance reports. No one has come forward to identify themselves as owning or managing the “Democrats for Marchant” page, nor do the expenditures appear in any campaign disclosure related to the race. Marchant’s attorney alleges that the expenditures amount to a campaign finance violation by or on behalf his opponent, Walt Wilkins.
Wilkins’ campaign tells us neither the candidate nor the campaign is behind the Facebook page. A Facebook message to “Democrats for Marchant” was not returned.
The ads bought by “Democrats for Marchant” have led hundreds of people to comment on the page, frequently expressing negative sentiments towards Marchant. Despite the page having reached between 15,000 and 62,000 Facebook users via advertisements, “Democrats for Marchant” has just 87 likes.
The pattern of “Democrats for Marchant” is simple: the page pushes out progressive messages, such as “stand up for Dr. Ford” and “thank you Lucas Marchant for standing strong with the Democrats.” The page advertises those posts. Negative reactions to Marchant follow.
On Tuesday, Marchant filed a lawsuit “to find out who is behind [the page]” and to make “voters aware of what is being used to polarize and disenfranchise them.” Marchant’s attorney, Josh Kendrick, said that he had subpoenaed Facebook because “we do not know who to address our concerns about the page to. We want to know who that is so we can talk to them.”
Kendrick also told TRMS that at least one of the photos on the Democrats for Marchant page was a non-public photo.
A call to Wilkins HQ led to a response from Luke Byars, who said he was with the campaign. In addition to saying that neither Wilkins nor the campaign has anything to do with the page, he called Marchant’s lawsuit a desperate attempt to get press coverage.
However, two days passed between the filing of the lawsuit and the first press story mentioning Marchant’s claims. Marchant’s campaign said they made no effort to contact the press in regard to the lawsuit. Kendrick, the attorney for Marchant, also said he made no effort to alert the press or publicize the case.
While it remains a mystery who is behind “Democrats for Marchant” or what the motivation for the page might be, it is worth noting a recent account of Americans adopting Russian social media tactics. The New York Times reported last week that Americans “are emulating the Russian strategy of 2016 by aggressively creating networks of Facebook pages and accounts -- many of them fake.” Last Thursday, Facebook shut down 559 accounts run by Americans, “many of which amplified false and misleading content.” As of October 25, “Democrats for Marchant” is still an active Facebook page.