Real or hoax? Link to Republican company, leaders’ silence fuel doubts about authenticity of Dallas ‘college pledge’

Real or hoax? Link to Republican company, leaders’ silence fuel doubts about authenticity of Dallas ‘college pledge’

The story was perfect outrage fodder for right-wing media outlets like Fox News, The Federalist, Breitbart News, The Daily Wire and The Daily Mail.

An activist group in Texas was demanding, online and in letters delivered to homes in upscale Dallas-area communities, that “wealthy white liberals” pledge not to send their kids to top colleges — so that White people could make amends for past wrongs and “open up spaces for Black and LatinX communities.”

The story about the apparent radicalism of the self-described “social justice” group Dallas Justice Now, which was even threatening to reveal the names of people who refused to sign the “college pledge,” rocketed around conservative media last week.

And then things got really weird.

Numerous observers, including some Dallas journalists and some conservative commentators, immediately suspected that Dallas Justice Now was a hoax, potentially intended to inflame racial tensions or make the Black Lives Matter movement look bad. And when journalist Steven Monacelli looked into Dallas Justice Now for a story in the Dallas Observer — after local residents and others on social media began poking around — he could not find any evidence that the group was authentic.

Nor could CNN.

We can’t definitively say Dallas Justice Now is fake. The group forcefully insisted on its legitimacy in a published statement last week.

But at the very least, the available evidence raises significant questions. Some pertinent facts:

• The Dallas Justice Now website has a proven connection to a Republican political company.

• A Facebook account for “Michele Washington,” the supposed spokeswoman for Dallas Justice Now, was taken offline soon after a journalist for Vice inquired to Facebook about is authenticity. Facebook, which declined to comment, has a policy of not allowing users to go by phony names.

• As the authenticity of Dallas Justice Now has been questioned in the media, neither Washington nor anyone else affiliated with the group has been willing to take even basic steps to prove that the group is real — such as speaking out loud to reporters or providing proof of its leaders’ identities.

• The first article about Dallas Justice Now, published months before the college pledge and months before the group had taken any action of significance, appeared on a website connected to a conservative businessman. The author of the article said “no comment” when we asked how she came to write it.

One local resident, Casie Tomlin, told CNN that she “knew” the college pledge request was “fake and meant to cause divide” immediately upon receiving the letter at her home in the affluent Dallas-area city of University Park — via FedEx, she said — on July 17.

Tomlin is not alone.

“All signs point to this being a hoax that employs source hacking as a tactic, where a false claim is spread and authorship is obscured,” said Joan Donovan, a disinformation expert who is research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Again, CNN can’t definitively declare that this is indeed a hoax. The Dallas Justice Now saga shows, yet again, how hard it can be to distinguish truth from elaborate lies.

Let’s run through what we know and what we don’t.

A confirmed link to a Republican company

Soon after conservative pundits began slamming the “college pledge” as an example of “woke” ideology gone wrong — “The bigotry of no expectations,” Black conservative commentator Candace Owens said in prime time on Fox News — an entity calling itself “Dallas Antifascists” looked into Dallas Justice Now’s website.

It discovered, from the web code, that the site has a clear connection to a Utah-based Republican political firm called Arena, which does direct mail, web development and other work for Republican candidates and causes around the country.

You don’t have to trust the “Antifascists.” Contacted by CNN, Arena chief operating officer Clint Brown acknowledged a connection between the company and the Dallas Justice Now site — but said that Arena abandoned its work with the client after discovering the client’s true intentions for the website.

“Arena did not and would never support an activity of this type. We were working with a client and when we learned what their objective was, the project was terminated. Unfortunately, it appears someone from the group copied the original code containing a link to the abandoned ‘under construction’ website, which linked to our server,” Brown said in an email.

Brown left important questions unanswered. Who was this client? What did Arena “learn” that prompted the supposed termination — that the client was intending to perpetrate a hoax, or that the client was planning to demand that White people sign a “college pledge”?

We don’t know. Regardless, it would be interesting for a young Texas social justice group to choose a Utah-based Republican campaign company as its web developer.

The connection to Arena is not the only curious thing about the website. The site also includes a blog whose posts are dated back to November 2020 even though the site was only registered at the end of May 2021.

That means either that someone legitimately wrote a bunch of posts in another forum and then transferred them to this Dallas Justice Now site once it was ready, or, perhaps, that someone wrote a bunch of back-dated posts for the purpose of making Dallas Justice Now’s history look longer than it actually is.

The mystery of Michele Washington

“Michele Washington” is the name on much of Dallas Justice Now’s publicity material. For example, Michele Washington was the named spokesperson on the statement last week that claimed that allegations of a hoax were “racist conspiracy theories” and that “we have no link whatsoever with these third party groups they allege.”

But as far as we can tell, Washington has never shown her face to a media outlet inquiring about Dallas Justice Now — and it is not clear if Washington has even spoken to any media outlet out loud. In other words, it is not clear that this Michele Washington is a real person.

As of last Wednesday, there was a bare-bones Facebook account attributed to a Michele Washington of Dallas Justice Now. Its profile picture was an artistic image, not a photo of a human, and few of the 221 “friends” listed at that time showed any apparent connection to Dallas or even Texas, while many of these friends appeared as if they were located abroad.

By last Friday, the account had been removed from public view. It remained down as of Tuesday morning.

CNN made numerous attempts to speak with Michele Washington. We sent messages through the Dallas Justice Now Facebook page; sent a message to the personal page for Washington before it was removed; called the Dallas Justice Now phone number three times. And because that number responds to phone calls with an auto-reply text message that says “Thanks for calling. Can I help you with a text instead?”, we tried texts, too.

We got no response. Neither did D Magazine editor Tim Rogers, who unsuccessfully tried to find her at an office suite Dallas Justice Now listed on the “college pledge” letters as its physical location.

So we went down another path — which was also a strange experience.

An early article on Dallas City Wire

“Michele Washington” was quoted in two articles about Dallas Justice Now on the website Dallas City Wire. When we reached out to the author of both of these articles, Juliette Fairley, Fairley refused to say whether she ever spoke with Washington out loud — repeatedly citing the First Amendment as the reason she would not divulge this information. (The First Amendment does not prevent a journalist from answering another journalist’s questions.)

Dallas City Wire is owned by Metric Media. That company, which was last year linked by the New York Times to a conservative businessman named Brian Timpone, runs a national network of “local news” sites that include both computer-generated articles and articles written by humans.

As the Times reported last year, some of these sites have allowed organizations to pay to have articles written. We have no evidence that this has happened with Dallas Justice Now in particular. However, we also don’t know how Dallas City Wire came to publish a piece about an obscure left-wing activist group before the group had done much of anything.

The first of Fairley’s articles about Dallas Justice Now was published in November 2020, within a month of the group creating its Twitter account; the article discussed how the group wanted to “abolish police unions” and was sharply critical of the Dallas school system, including “racist board members.” Fairley said “no comment” when we asked her in an email how this article came to be written.

Fairley’s other article about Dallas Justice Now, published on July 23 of this year, helped to trigger the national controversy about the “college pledge” for White parents. Fairley said she pitched this article to Dallas City Wire after receiving a Facebook message from a stranger about the letters.

Dallas City Wire and Metric Media did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

More unanswered questions

In this July 23 article, Fairley wrote that “Michele Washington” said Dallas Justice Now would soon unveil an Advisory Council “that includes Professor Troy Harden, director of the Race and Ethnic Studies Institute at Texas A&M.”

When we contacted Harden last week, he said that was not true.

“I know very little about them. Talked to one person, one time. Did not agree to be on an advisory board or express interest. I have no affiliation with them. I have no further comment,” Harden said in an email, declining to say who he spoke with or whether he had communicated out loud with them.

There is one other name attached to Dallas Justice Now. A first name, specifically.

The “college pledge” letters listed a “Jamila” as a contact at the group. And a Black woman who identified herself as Jamila appeared in a Dallas Justice Now web video talking about how a college education for her children would benefit her family for generations.

The woman in the video did not mention anything about a pledge or about White people not sending their own kids to elite schools. The woman in the video also did not employ the incendiary language Dallas Justice Now has used in its written materials.

After questions began to bubble about Dallas Justice Now, the video was deleted in late July. It is still not clear who Jamila is.

Aggressive responses

It’s important to note that the evasiveness of Dallas Justice Now is not conclusive evidence that it is illegitimate. A real group could be staying quiet amid controversy for a variety of rational reasons.

Still, it’s worth noting that Dallas Justice Now has not answered even basic questions in order to demonstrate its authenticity. Instead of having its leaders speak to reporters, it has published written statements blasting some of the people who have raised reasonable questions.

Tomlin began asking skeptical questions online after she received the letter in University Park. Tomlin said she also made a $3 donation to Dallas Justice Now, which she said was the minimum possible donation, to see if that would help her get more information.

Instead of reassuring Tomlin, Dallas Justice Now issued a scorching press release baselessly accusing her of “racist attacks” and calling her “the embodiment of white privilege and white fragility.” When Tomlin tried to get information from the fundraising company Dallas Justice Now used as its platform to receive donations, Dallas Justice Now responded to the company that “this lady Casie Tomlin is a white supremacist” — there is no evidence for that claim — and that it wanted to refund the money she donated “to avoid further harassment by her,” according to a message chain Tomlin forwarded to CNN.

Tomlin said the accusations of bigotry are “categorically false.” She said she has attended several Black Lives Matter demonstrations against injustice in policing and the judicial system; she said, “I am not a racist or white supremacist. They attacked me because I asked questions about their organization.”

Tomlin contacted the University Park police. Chief Bill Mathes told CNN on Monday that his department was not investigating Dallas Justice Now or the letters, saying “nothing has been brought to our attention regarding this incident that is criminal in nature.”

Dallas Justice Now’s online donations page, which was online early last week, had been taken offline as of last Friday and remained down as of Tuesday morning. It was not clear why.

The-CNN-Wire
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