HONESDALE, PA — A slate of Wayne County residents attended the Wayne County Commissioner’s meeting on Thursday, June 11 to voice their concerns about the community’s susceptibility …
HONESDALE, PA — A slate of Wayne County residents attended the Wayne County Commissioner’s meeting on Thursday, June 11 to voice their concerns about the community’s susceptibility to misinformation on the internet. Specifically, the residents discussed the way that local government officials, including one of the commissioners, “promulgated” and “perpetuated” recent social media rumors.
One week before, Honesdale-native Amanda DeMasi organized a peaceful, anti-police brutality protest in Honesdale’s Central Park. Rumors and threats abounded in the days leading up to, and during, the event. Most prominently, a rumor circulated widely that radical, anti-fascist (Antifa) protesters were getting bused into the area to start a riot that night.
On the day of the protest, local news outlet Wayne Pike News published a story online titled, “Wayne County Commissioner Adams Speaks On Riots.” The story quoted Joe Adams saying the following statement:
“We, like the country, are all appalled by the events in Minneapolis and the terrible brutality that happened and it needs to be handled swiftly with full charges to the responsible officers... and we whole heartedly agree with freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully and making the public aware of the issues of concern... but are very concerned about the good intentions of good people in our community creating opportunity for bad people with bad intentions from miles outside of our community to come in and destroy our community... all in the nature of destruction and hate.”
On the same day, a Facebook account named “PA State Constable, Preston Township” posted a status update that read, “It has been confirmed that ‘protestors’ [sic] are being bused into Honesdale for today/tonight’s protests. Due to the unpredictable and often violent nature of these recent and ongoing protests we recommend avoiding the Honesdale area.” The post was later deleted, then reposted with a disabled comment section, then the account was deleted altogether.
Local resident and business owner, Dave Harvey, has since been looking deeper into the source of this misinformation, and has lodged legal complaints regarding the constable’s Facebook post. He addressed the commissioners, specifically Adams, at the June 11 meeting.
“Some of us are upset over this statement, but I sincerely appreciate you trying to communicate to all of us that day,” Harvey said to Adams. “I believe you did the best you could… we all have to talk about some things and try to do better next time.”
Lisa Glover, a member of the Honesdale Parks & Recreation Commission, told Adams he had “let our community down.”
“You passively let fear perpetuate in a way that left good people afraid to exercise their civil rights and cause local business owners to lose business… as they closed early to defend against an enemy that turned out to be nothing more than their neighbor,” she said.
Commissioners Brian Smith and Adams responded, equating the county’s response to the social media threats to the local school districts’ responses to bomb threats: they evacuate the school and take precautions every time there is a bomb threat, even though none have been legitimate thus far.
“There is no doubt that nobody cares more about the community than [the commissioners], trying to make the right decision at the right time and make the public aware so that they can make good decisions,” Adams said.
To get a law enforcement perspective, district attorney A.G. Howell reported to the commissioners that, prior to the protest, local law enforcement had received “credible information” that “some people having ulterior motives were going to come to disrupt the protest.” He also cited “online intel that antagonizers from in and out of [Wayne County] may be coming to the June 4 protest to try and incite unlawfulness at the rally.” He said that this led to a county-wide law enforcement collaboration to monitor the protest.
Later in the meeting, organizer DeMasi responded to the Howell. “I’ve been told that this information is verified, but I’ve yet to see where this information has come from, I’ve yet to know the source,” she said, requesting that the county release the channels through which it was misinformed about the rumored Antifa buses. Harvey also pushed Howell to comment on the origins of the rumor, but the DA said that the details were still being investigated.
Claire Harvey, Dave Harvey’s daughter who grew up in Wayne County, also spoke during the meeting, noting that similar social media hoaxes have pervaded protests in small towns throughout the country. She said that while she agreed that law enforcement should take these threats seriously, they should have done so without “fueling fear in the community.”
Smith said that, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent protest, the commissioners have recently been dealing with, and learning from, a lot of “firsts.”
“We’re running into situations like this protest—first that I can remember in my tenure—and so maybe I can handle things a little bit better, learning from experiences. I always try to do that, I think we all do,” Smith said.
Adams said he has received two “very critical” emails from citizens, and that he has responded to both encouraging them to call him and talk about the situation further.
“We [commissioners] are certainly not avoiding it, we’re certainly not in a situation where we’re trying to promote bad intentions,” he said. “Our intentions were extremely good and I think that we tried our best.”