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The ‘toxic’ algae issue: Social media ire has law enforcement on alert


A stream of online vitriol about Florida’s toxic algae disaster has piqued the interest of law enforcement, which is monitoring posts following comments about blowing up the Herbert Hoover Dike, vandalizing cars and “hanging state politicians.”

Whether the internet provocations are just disgruntled grousing or credible threats will be considered by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which is accepting reports from law enforcement agencies as well as its own review, said spokesman Eric Davis.

“You just can’t say you are going to blow up the dike or that you will be on the stairs of U.S. Sugar with ARs (assault rifles),” said Capt. Susan Harrelle of the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office, which covers the Lake Okeechobee town of Clewiston. “I understand the passion, but it’s really not the right way to go about it.”

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The anger is rooted in the massive red tide fish kills on Florida’s southwest coast and the blue-green algae in the northern estuaries.

A South Florida Water Management District employee told the Lee County Sheriff’s Office she was in her work vehicle this month in Bonita Springs when a man pulled his car behind her in a Walgreens parking lot, trapping her in a parking space. She said he cussed at her, made obscene gestures and yelled “I have to swim in that water” and “corruption with Big Sugar.”

Also, district board member Melanie Peterson said a man who has harassed her online in the past posted her district profile, which includes her photo, where she works and her cell phone number, to a site calling her “one of the criminals responsible for the algae problem.” Peterson, the only woman on the voluntary board, said no other members are experiencing similar harassment. 

District officials and other board members were biting in their public rebuke of the incidents.

“I will not stand for the harassment of our employees and will hold any member of the public accountable for their actions,” said district Executive Director Ernie Marks at a Thursday governing board meeting.

PHOTOS: Florida’s blue-green algae disaster 2018

Board Chairman Frederico Fernandez said the safety of board members and district employees is “paramount.”

“Mark my words, we will protect and care for the individuals that provide these critical services,” he said.

Social media’s dangerous mob mentality

Ralph E. Cash, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University who studies social media, said he’s concerned about how divisive online rhetoric is affecting the country, including inciting people to do things they may not normally do.

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One online message about the algae crisis asks people to post photos of officials who should be confronted in public – a recent trend that has included the hecklings of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, White House adviser Stephen Miller, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and conservative activists Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens.

Another post says its time to “bypass policies and overthrow this.” One woman claims to be a sniper and asks how she can help. A man says he has an AR, “but it’s going to take a big group to stand off local law enforcement.”

“When people have a sense of anonymity that social media gives them, or they have a sense of being part of a group, they may very well be less likely to incorporate their own inhibitions or use their own sense of what is right,” Cash said. “People can be urged on by social media.”

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Much of what has been reported to law enforcement, or is still on some Facebook pages, are rants aimed at sugarcane farms south of Lake Okeechobee for either being in the way of sending water south to the Everglades as was the original flow, or for “back-pumping” — a practice that largely ended in the late 1980s and is done today only in emergency situations where there is a danger of communities being flooded.

Flows coming into Lake Okeechobee from the north are the key concern as far as reducing nutrient levels in the lake. Several projects are underway to clean lake water and send it south, including a new reservoir that was fast-tracked after the 2016 blue-green algae outbreak.

‘No single person or thing to blame’

The group Glades Lives Matter, which includes residents of Pahokee, Belle Glade, South Bay, Moore Haven and Clewiston, circulated a press release last week saying “hate will get us nowhere.”

But one Facebook post points out that angry rhetoric can come from both sides.

District board member Jim Moran said it was the “far left folks” making political differences personal and that anyone harassing district employees should be exposed for the “fascists and tyrants that they are.”

“It’s just a general sense today of us versus them, rather than we are all Americans and we are in this together,” Cash said.

Nyla Pipes, a member of the district’s Water Resources Analysis Coalition, noticed anger escalating in social media posts last month and brought it up at an Aug. 2 meeting.

“There are so many people pushing and trying to place blame and there is no one single particular person or thing to blame,” she said. “We have a plumbing problem.”

PHOTOS: Why is thick seaweed cursing South Florida beaches this summer?

Fixing that problem, which began 70 years ago when South Florida cared more about flood control than Everglades conservation, isn’t simple. And it certainly can’t be boiled down to a quip on social media, said Linda Hon, a University of Florida professor in the Department of Public Relations.

Hon said that while social media has provided unprecedented opportunities for people to mobilize, the discussion can deteriorate rapidly because of “context collapse.”

“The typically brief messages posted and shared on social media may lack the depth needed to address the complexities of issues such as the algae problems,” Hon said. “So, angry rhetoric does often appear, especially around highly politicized issues such as the environment where numerous stakeholders with different positions are involved.”

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