It was Nov. 6, the morning after Safiya Khalid’s historic electoral victory in Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine. Khalid had just become the first Somali-American to win a seat on the city council in this deindustrialized mill town, where thousands of African refugees have settled over the past two decades. Her groundbreaking accomplishment in a campaign marred by Islamophobic political attacks garnered national attention, including an article in the Washington Post and an appearance on CNN, as well as a congratulatory tweet from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Members of a popular local Facebook group called LA’s Journal were not celebrating. (LA is shorthand for Lewiston-Auburn, the twin cities divided by the Androscoggin River in central Maine.) Many had spent the past week spreading racist and anti-Muslim hate speech online in an effort to derail Khalid’s campaign — a tactic that had proven effective in past municipal elections. Some members of the Facebook group called Khalid a “shitbag muslim” who wears a “head diaper;” another advocated “killing as many muslims as possible.” One poster shared Khalid’s home address, implicitly encouraging other group members to terrorize the 23-year-old candidate, who reportedly received death threats and was subjected to other harassment during the race.
“Good morning lewiston. Is everyone congratulating safiya khalid this morning,” LA’s Journal member Shawn Asselin posted in the private group.
“No,” replied fellow group member Scott Moody. “They should never be able to run for anything,” he added, referring to Muslims as “flea bags.”
“Fuck her piece of shit,” opined an LA’s Journal member named Luc Plourde, whose comment was “liked” by several others.
“So glad I don’t live in that shit hole,” wrote group member Natasha Elsman, invoking one of President Donald Trump’s infamous slurs. Lewiston is “already starting to look like the shit hole they came from. Between trash, gang fights, kids being neglected, Bugs,” she wrote. Elsman’s comment had generated twice as many “likes” as Plourde’s at the time of the screenshot obtained by Mainer.
LA’s Journal poster Mike Bailey referred to Khalid as a “pig” who “hate[s] everything to do with you or anybody else if you don’t believe in Allah.”
Below Bailey’s comment, LA’s Journal member Linda Proulx wrote: “Lewiston is going to hell now.”
Not all of the posters in the private group used the occasion of Khalid’s win to stoke anti-Muslim hate. “Congratulations,” wrote Christian Venable. “Nothing wrong with her being on the council. She was voted in. Instead of everyone bashing her…why dont [sic] we support her and be part of coming solutions.”
Pearl Benner, the creator and primary administrator of the Facebook group, replied to Venable and tagged him in her comment. “Why don’t you write your grandchildren a letter and apologize for not fighting for them [angry-face emoji] because by the time they grow up we will have Shari [sic] law … one of your great grandchildren will marry some old nasty man at the age of 9 [emojis of a woman in a hijab flanked by two hands extending the middle finger]. I will never forget [w]hat this [sic] S.O.Bs [sic] did on 9/11. Wake the FK up.”
Created in the fall of 2016, LA’s Journal was initially a group where Facebook users often posted old photos of Lewiston and Auburn that inspired nostalgic comments about “the good old days.” But it’s also become a haven for racists, Islamophobes and other haters to spew vitriol and demonize fellow Lewistonians who arrived after fleeing terrorist violence in Somalia and other African nations.
There are now about 6,000 former refugees living in Lewiston (pop. approx. 36,000), and their presence is widely cited as a major factor in the city’s revitalization. But there are over 4,200 members of LA’s Journal, each personally approved by Benner. In order to be approved, users must answer the question, “Was you born in Lewiston Auburn?” Non-members cannot see posts on LA’s Journal, and this layer of anonymity has clearly emboldened the trolls to use racist slurs, promote lies about Islam and incite violence against Muslims.
For example, to help Lewistonians “survive the invasion,” one LA’s Journal member, Michael R. Edgecomb, Jr., shared a “Handy Sharia Law Checklist” earlier this year The graphic lists “necrophilia,” “paedophilia,” “unlimited sex slaves,” “bestiality,” “cannibalism” and “rape of non muslims” as intrinsic tenets of Islam. A video recently posted to the page appears to show a Muslim girl on a school bus punching another student in retaliation for being taunted. The comment thread below the video quickly devolves into a virtual lynch mob, with one member replying, “Nasty fucks!! Ship em back! They come here and infect all of us.”
“Is that Ilhan Omar??” another LA’s Journal commenter posted below the video. “Rip the fucking hijab off that Cunts [sic] head!!” When another group member suggested hate speech like that comment was what led to the skirmish on the school bus, the commenter replied, “Go fuck yourself! I’m sick of these assholes being defended and protected while we’re supposed to just sit back and accept it!”
Benner polices her Facebook group’s page, but it seems that her targets are those who question the hateful narratives her page encourages. For instance, after Khalid’s election win, a woman posted that “referring to Somalians as ‘they’ and stereotyping” won’t help the city of Lewiston. Her post attracted a swarm of racist trolls, and then Benner intervened — not to upbraid or block the racists, but to flag the dissenter’s public Facebook profile and promptly remove her from the group.
These Facebook groups have the potential to radicalize closet racists and incite real-world acts of white-power terror. Last month, an LA’s Journal user posted an invitation to join the 3 Percenters, an anti-Muslim militia whose members pledge to take up armed resistance against the government if it strips away their perceived Constitutional rights, such as the right to bear arms. One LA’s Journal member replied to the invitation with, “DEUS VULT my brother!” — meaning “God wills it,” a battle cry of the Crusaders during the First Crusade, in the year 1095.
In 2018, three men calling themselves “The Crusaders,” an anti-Muslim terrorist group with ties to the 3 Percent Movement, were convicted of plotting to bomb a Kansas mosque and an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants. This past September, Khalid posted a text message she received from a Facebook user that featured a 3-Percenter logo and had a profile picture of paramilitary fighters firing automatic rifles.* The woman who sent the text accused Khalid of supporting Sharia Law and told her “you get a big FU from me. There is NO PLACE for sharia law in Maine.”
Concerned users of the social-media site can’t report hateful content posted in private groups unless they’re granted access to the group by its administrator. But even if you do get in and report hateful posts, the faceless Facebook administrators may refuse to take action.
When one critical LA’s Journal member (who requested anonymity due to threats this user has received from other group members) flagged violent and racist content posted to LA’s Journal, Facebook brushed off the reports. In the case of the “Handy Sharia Law Checklist,” for example, the tech giant responded to the assertion that it constituted hate speech by sending a message that began, “Thanks for your report — you did the right thing by letting us know about this. The post was reviewed, and though it doesn’t go against one of our specific Community Standards, we understand that it may still be offensive to you and others.
“No one should have to see posts they consider hateful on Facebook,” the reply continued, “so we want to help you avoid things like this in the future.” The reply goes on to note that the user can block the group member who shared the anti-Muslim content, “or you may be able to unfriend or unfollow them.”
The Facebook message further encouraged the concerned user to “consider using Facebook to speak out and educate the community around you. Counter-speech in the form of accurate information and alternative viewpoints can help create a safer and more respectful environment.”
The anonymous LA’s Journal critic tried to engage in some “counter-speech” with one of the group’s members. “Some aliens are not humans. End of story,” the user retorted in a private message to the critic. “They are shit bags they are scum and they are Islamic f***** hard who would behead you in the street if you were in their own country. Do not ever make the mistake of crossing my path.”
There’s a reason Facebook encourages users to fight hate speech on its platform rather than policing its platform to remove hate speech. “Islamophobia happens to be something that made these companies lots and lots of money,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who’s researched online harassment, in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko noted that, “Researchers say Facebook is the primary mainstream platform where extremists organize and anti-Muslim content is deliberately spread.” She also pointed out that Facebook’s mysterious algorithm identifies viewers of hate-speech posts and “recommends related groups that can point people to extremism.”
Michael Edgecomb, the LA’s Journal member who posted the “Sharia Checklist,” responded to Mainer’s questions by complaining that the group’s administrators “were letting snowflakes in,” and that these “terrorist-loving pieces of shit” were reporting his posts and others’, resulting in temporary suspensions from the platform.
Benner has been suspended from Facebook in the past, at least once. An LA’s Journal co-administrator named Tina Ouellette posted in the summer of 2018 that Benner “is in facebook [sic] Jail again [for] 30 days!!” (Benner did not respond to a message Mainer sent her via Facebook seeking comment.)
We found Ouellette’s post on another Facebook group, a prime example of what the platform considers “counter-speech.” This group, created in July of 2018, is called “Pearl Benner Is A Lying Racist And LA’s Journal Is Full Of Trash.” As of today, the page had been liked by 43 people — about 1 percent of the total membership of LA’s Journal.
*An earlier version of this post erroneously characterized the depiction of the paramilitary fighters in this profile picture.