NEW CANAAN — After Jennifer Dulos vanished in late May, thousands took to a social media page to share news updates, court documents and research about players involved in the high-profile case.


For some, the private Facebook page, “Jennifer Dulos, Fotis Dulos, Michelle Troconis, Connecticut Case Discussion,” served as a support group for survivors of domestic violence, who felt emboldened to take action against their abusers. For others, it was simply a way to stay on top of a fast-paced case with hourly news updates in a highly-publicized investigation.


But the group that grew from a few dozen people to almost 10,000 members shifted in tone after “trolls” or unknown individuals either hacked into the page or were accidentally granted administrative privileges by a creator of the group.



“Somehow, some way, someone gained access to our group,” said Jonathan Riches, a Florida resident and former administrator and creator of the group. “I don’t know whether it was via a hack, or someone sort of wormed their way in to convince another admin to (give them) admin (privileges). But once they gained access to the group, they ‘unadminned’ all of us. We lost all our admin capabilities of the page, so we lost control of the page. Then they added a bunch of troll accounts or troll people and they just basically trashed the group.”




On Aug. 9, the five or six original admins were demoted to general members, and trolls began posting irrelevant content, shifting the narrative from supporting finding Jennifer Dulos, to becoming a “pro-Fotis Dulos” page, Riches said. Before Facebook shut down the page on Wednesday, one of the original admins was targeted, and trolls began posting taunting messages alongside pictures of the woman posing with her family.


Members of the Facebook group, “Red Shoe Crime District,” have claimed responsibility for the hack.


“It just turned into personal attacks where if anyone tried to still discuss the case … the trolls came out and just personally and viciously attacked,” said Lori Weaver, a former member of the group. “That’s all it turned into, was a free-for-all for the trolls to just go after people. I think it was just nasty people who found a loophole to get into a page and took advantage of it,” she said, adding that the group was supportive of her and other traumatized women who were victims of domestic violence.



A post by Weaver in the now defunct group gained hundreds of “likes” after the Fairfield County woman posted a photo of her filing a restraining order against her boyfriend in state Superior Court.


Rich Hanley, a former Time magazine reporter who is now an associate journalism professor at Quinnipiac University, said hate speech found in the Dulos Facebook page would ordinarily be restricted to “free-for-all” message boards such as 4 chan, 8 chan and even some sub-Reddit groups.


“But now techniques have been refined to carve out a pathway to (infiltrate) Facebook,” he said. “It’s just the nature of online, where folks can assume an anonymous posture or pose as somebody (else). What you need is just the capacity to pose as somebody you’re not, gain access to a group’s admin status and then allow and cultivate your own membership — and that group will post stuff because it has privileges to do so.”


Admins and former members still question why the Dulos group was particularly targeted.


“It doesn’t seem to be the type of topic that would attract such behavior,” Hanley said. “But it’s not surprising when it does happen. That’s the way the online ecosystem works.”


The incident has left admins and former members angry about Facebook’s policies when group pages are hacked and there not being a more easy way to communicate the problem to the company.


Facebook did not respond to a request for a comment.


After Riches and other admins were demoted from their roles or removed from the group, the only option was to report the trolls’ derogatory posts to Facebook. There’s no mechanism or feature that allows admins to report that their group has been hijacked, Riches said.


“Its policies are long and, in some cases, unclear, because it’s evolving along with its audience, as it tries to figure out how to police its application as lightly as possible to keep the content flowing,” Hanley said. “Facebook has made it clear that they wish to have a light hand in terms of controlling content, and they’ve created policies to sort of reinforce that. They ultimately have the capacity to ban whomever they want, at least for a moment, until those people reinvent themselves through various means to find another way in.”


For a platform like Facebook that comprises almost 3 billion users, it is impossible to provide human moderation for every complaint, Hanley said.


Still, Riches isn’t consoled, knowing he’s spent hundreds of hours building and maintaining a page that went from 9,500 to 6,000 people before it was shut down.


“We put a lot of effort into just managing, monitoring and engaging people, encouraging people to post content,” said Riches, who has created about 50 similar pages following tragedies that gained national attention. “All the effort I put into trying to do a service to the community, to put out as much information as possible, is gone. I think me personally, I’m done creating new groups. It’s a bad reflection on us, the admins, ‘cause the other people, the members, don’t know what’s going on. They might just think we trashed our own group or something like that.”


While Riches has chosen to back off, another admin has restarted the Dulos Facebook page with the same name.


“They should not let this deter them from opening their cause to a wider audience,” Hanley said. “Just be mindful that it may be infiltrated and to take action as soon as they see evidence of that.”


Fotis Dulos, 52, and his girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, 44, have pleaded not guilty to tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution in the disappearance of Jennifer Dulos.


Troconis is scheduled to make her next court appearance on Monday, while Fotis Dulos appeared last week.



tatiana.flowers@thehour.com


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: