Debate Over Guns, Morse Recall Mired in Cyber Censorship

Sen. John Morse with a supporter in an issue campaign shirt. Photo from the Facebook page A Whole Lot of People for John Morse.

The Colorado Secretary of State announced this week that 10,137 of the more than 16,000 signatures collected in a petition to recall State Senator John Morse are valid and sufficient to potentially qualify for the first-ever recall election in Colorado history.

With just weeks to go before the tightest gun controls in the West take effect — required background checks on firearms, with performance fee paid by the buyer or seller and a ban on high-capacity magazines — Morse’s potential recall from his El Paso County District seat has made Colorado a political battleground for a nationwide debate. Much of the fight taking place in cyberspace isn’t just about who gets guns, but also who’s getting heard.

Jane Dougherty, a Littleton resident who lost her sister, a psychologist at Sandy Hook, in the Connecticut shooting that left six educators and 20 children dead, posted this message on June 14 in support of the Senate president whose district includes eastern Colorado Springs.

“It is sadly ironic that exactly six months after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, we learn that Senator Morse may indeed face a recall election for having the courage to take a stand on gun violence prevention,” she wrote.

“The time for action to stop gun violence is long overdue,” Dougherty’s post continues, “and I stand with Senator Morse and the majority of Colorado legislators who voted to make our state safer. These bills went through the democratic process and were supported by a majority of legislators. And further, they are supported by more than 80% of Coloradans…”

Dougherty’s post, made to Morse’s Facebook-based issue defense campaign “A Whole Lot of People for John Morse,” was tagged multiple times as inappropriate – meaning certain Facebook users felt it violated what the site calls “community standards” for reasons that can include hate speech, harassment and graphic violence. Facebook removed the post.

“My understanding is that for Facebook it’s a numbers game,” said Christy Le Lait, campaign manager for A Whole Lot of People. “If you have enough people who flag something, it just comes down. We’re continually targeted by people who are essentially trolls. This time all the administrative accounts were suspended, as were many accounts belonging to people who had shared the post.”

Le Lait feels the post reporting is intentionally overblown and offensive, essentially trolling, and that along with the subsequent post removal and account suspensions, there’s been a breakdown in democratic process.

“If you’re not able to have an intelligent debate, all you can do is attack,” she said. “At first it was just a hassle, now it’s offensive because they’re going after people’s ability to make statements about what’s happening.”

A quick perusal of the A Whole Lot of People page seems to support a few of Le Lait’s concerns.

“Its interesting that so many topics are being deleted from this page,” wrote poster Curtis Cookson. “I have tried to engage in discussion but the whole topic gets removed. I think I am done here.”

Cookson’s comment echoes Le Lait’s frustrations. A quick click to Cookson’s Facebook profile brings up a red equals sign made of two big guns — Cookson might be one of the trolls messing with Le Lait’s campaign page. Or, like Le Lait herself, he might be legitimately frustrated by the uncertain ground of this particular political battlefield.

It’s hard to know. Cookson was not available for comment and when it comes to the silencing of political voice on Facebook, the folks on the other side of the gun control debate feel exactly the same way as Le Lait.

“This is getting removed as fast as it goes up, spread it around,” reads a post by Steve Wilga to the Recall Senator John Morse Facebook page. The link goes to an article by Lady Patriots, which argues that conservative Facebook pages also are being are targeted and infiltrated by left-wing activists, and specifically hamstrung by Facebook executives.

Accusations of censorship and underhanded cyber-tactics abound in the gun debate — and other hot-button political issues. A particularly interesting side-storm when the Morse recall is marked by the same concern about valid on-the-ground tactics.

“We’ll file a legal grievance over how the petition signatures were collected,” Le Lait said of her campaign’s response to the Secretary of State’s announcement that the recall effort collected enough signatures, Tuesday. “We have video of petitioners going door to door saying things like, ‘sign this petition to protect your rights.”

According to postings from the A Whole Lot of People campaign, the petition is illegal and signature collection violated the Colorado Constitution‘s stipulation that petition language specify the demand for a recall and the election of a successor.

In a local recall debate with national impact on gun legislation, both sides continue to emphasize that valid political process — being heard and allowing your opponents to be heard — is fundamentally important.

“He refuses to listen to constituents or read their emails, then bragged about it on national television,” reads the first line of the “Why recall John Morse?” manifesto on The Basic Freedom Defense Fund’s website. The BFDF is the pack behind the Morse recall campaign and wholly unaffiliated with the El Paso County Republican Party, according to the area’s GOP executive director Cherish Schaffer.

In a debate that seems almost as focused on the future of political voice — whose posts stay up and whose emails opened — as on who gets to bear arms, an important voice appears to be missing.

“Facebook is a vital political tool, a way of reaching a large number of people and spreading the word. But Facebook hasn’t figured out the rules either and it’s really hard to get in touch with them. It’s like trying to get in touch with Google,” Le Lait said.

As Le Lait’s page shares Facebook-exclusive campaign messages from Morse to his supporters and the Morse Recall page keeps its troops on a steady news stream featuring the perils of overreaching gun-control legislation, The Colorado Independent made several attempts to contact Facebook about its emergent role facilitating political action and debate. The company was not available for comment.

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