Activists say Chattanooga police officers are using fake Facebook profiles to influence public opinion, sow division and discredit law enforcement critics.
They are urging people not to accept friend requests from "Chante Raleigh" or "Taneisha MissLovely Halfacre." Their warning comes as Chattanooga activists continue to use social media to organize support for Charles Toney Jr., the man at the center of a viral Dec. 3 arrest.
Since 2013, activists say, Chante Raleigh's account has befriended more than 3,000 people, many of them suspected gang members, activists or young black men in Chattanooga, and regularly comments on news stories critical of the police department. Halfacre tends to comment directly on users' photos and has been operating since at least 2011. Both accounts appear to be black women who say they are from Nashville.
In her comments, Raleigh usually defends officers and has heckled citizens for their weight, grammar and intellect. If the stories deal with racial issues, Raleigh's account has chided critical commenters for their "white guilt." Her account has also referenced people's criminal histories unsolicited on multiple occasions.
Isaiah Moore, 27, said he and a friend were debating a Chattanooga police officer on Facebook in September when Chante Raleigh mentioned an 11-year-old charge that Moore picked up as a minor in the comments. The charge had been dismissed, expunged and is not public record.
"I know there was nobody but the police that could pull it up," Moore said. "When I was found innocent, the [Hamilton County Juvenile Court] judge shredded the paperwork in front of me."
Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal would not confirm or deny whether an officer created Raleigh's account. "I'm not the Facebook police, so not sure which accounts on their platform are legit or fake," she wrote in an email.
Attempts to confirm Chante Raleigh and Taneisha Halfacre's identities through public records have been unsuccessful. Neither account has responded to requests for comment.
Facebook has a policy against operating fake accounts, pretending to be someone else, or otherwise misrepresenting an authentic identity. That policy applies to citizens and police, and the social media company wrote the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014, demanding agents stop hiding behind fake profiles.
But the practice persists among law enforcement agencies nationwide.
In response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, a white detective with the Memphis Police Department's Office of Homeland Security testified earlier this year that he contacted hundreds of activists using a "Bob Smith" Facebook profile where he posed as a person of color.
Meanwhile, some courts have approved of the practice. In 2014, U.S. District Judge William Martini said New Jersey law enforcement didn't need a search warrant to go through defendant Daniel Gatson's Instagram account because Gatson had accepted a request to become friends with the undercover police officers.
Facebook doesn't have a vested interest in privacy, criminal justice experts say. During the 2016 presidential election, the site was flooded with political ads and profiles created by Russian operatives. And other news accounts say Facebook released user's personal messages and other information to private companies such as Cambridge Analytica.
"Facebook can scold and yell and scream all they want, but they can't stop the police," said Brad Shearer, an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area who advises individuals on privacy rights.
Shearer said he also teaches police departments how to create undercover social media accounts that cannot be traced back to them.
Some see this as law enforcement doing their job and getting criminals off the streets. In Chattanooga, officers regularly scan Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for possible crimes. A man and woman were arrested in July 2017 for attempted rape and aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor after officers saw a Facebook live video they made of the incident. And social media helps officers track "beefs" among street gangs, police have said.
But others say it has a chilling effect on free speech and follows a long history of law enforcement cracking down on minorities and government dissidents. If officers see photos of suspected gang members, hand signs or colors on Facebook, it can land them on the city's gang list. That association makes it easier for prosecutors to seek a higher bond in court or build large cases against multiple people at once.
"In today's age, so much organizing does happen on Facebook," said Vera Eidelman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union specializing in speech privacy and technology. "I think it's concerning if it's used in any sort of racially discriminatory way. It's also troubling if it's focused on folks who hold particular viewpoints."
Spokeswoman Myzal said users should not accept Facebook requests from strangers. If they are concerned, Myzal added, citizens should report any such accounts to Facebook.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.