School district officials concerned about allegations of social media ‘spying’

FORT MYERS

Lee County School District officials are concerned that their own communications office is monitoring private citizens on social media.

It was raised at a school board workshop last month. A district employee has since filed a whistleblower complaint. He claims workers were instructed to “spy” on the public.

Paul Barnes had four children in the Lee County school system, and he’s been vocal about the district on Facebook for years.

“Did I ever suspect that they were monitoring my every post on Facebook and social media,” Barnes asked. “No, I’m more upset right now than ever.”

Previous cover: Lee County school district charged with social media spying

A district employee hit a breaking point earlier this year. They filed a whistleblower complaint, revealing that their “mental health had deteriorated” because what they were doing was “morally wrong”.

The complaint says communications staff were instructed to “scroll through” media posts, copy and paste “accompanying public comments” and send the results to multiple people in communications.

During the WINK News investigation, investigative journalist Peter Fleischer obtained over 100 social media posts, including those from WINK News, and over 800 public comments which were allegedly monitored and archived by staff. of the district since 2019.

Barnes’ Facebook comments were included.

“They’re not my dad,” Barnes said. “You shouldn’t watch what we do on social media. It’s not your business! How about focusing on educating our children?

Publicly, Director of Strategic Communications Irma Lancaster denied oversight to school board members on May 24, 2021. District 6 member Betsy Vaughn asked Lancaster, “is someone internally doing this?”

Lancaster replied, “I don’t know anyone in the house professionally who would do that; however, anyone can go online and do their own research.

But behind closed doors, there is a different feeling.

“Honestly, I feel like that was misleading,” Vaughn told WINK News in a recent interview.

School board members Betsy Vaughn and Melisa Giovannelli say they have seen numerous archived posts and comments. They feel like it crosses the line between watching media content and invading a private space.

“What’s going on, has so-and-so made a negative comment about the neighborhood?” Or a school? I really feel like it’s too intrusive,” Vaughn said.

“It’s wrong in many ways,” Giovannelli said of the surveillance of private citizens. “You should not use public funds for public service against the public we serve.”

The Lee County School District’s Social Media Guidelines do not directly mention social media monitoring, but they do state that “employees, except those with permission to post to social media accounts school and district officials should refrain from visiting social media sites during student contact hours. .”

According to their own guidelines, communications employees should not be on social media at work unless posting to official district accounts.

“I am very concerned that we could use public funds and resources that belong to the people, against these same people,” Vaughn admitted.

The district also has a contract with an outside marketing company, and Lancaster admitted that the main benefit of this contract is media monitoring.

“The top three services we used in communications were media monitoring,” Lancaster told Vaughn on May 24, 2021.

WINK News therefore requested all files the company sent to the district regarding media monitoring from October to November 2021. We received dozens of coverage reports with links to news stories, but there were no no social media content or public comments included.

Given this, why would district employees be instructed to do the same and include private citizens in their data collection?

Vaughn has questions.

“Why are we doing this? what do we gain? and how much are we really spending?

“I don’t think anyone should be watching anyone,” Giovannelli said.

WINK News has also obtained an email that appears to show staff being instructed to comment on a Facebook post within a private group, and the whistleblower’s complaint claims district officials were aware of ” specific troublemakers” online.

Board members say this recent evidence confirms their fears and they wonder how far the oversight goes.

“I knew it happened,” Vaughn says. “That people had their own accounts monitored in one way or another. In fact, I had reason to believe that I had been watched.

Giovannelli was also worried: “We are not the police. People have the right to speak up and say what they choose to say.

Giovannelli expressed optimism that the district will have new leadership under new leadership and hopes to put those concerns in the rearview mirror.

WINK News contacted Lee Schools communications staff and asked why this information was being monitored and archived, but they declined our interview request. The district did not have an update on the investigation into the spying issues.

We spoke with many school board members for this story: all confirmed some knowledge of the espionage allegations, but some of them did not feel comfortable speaking to us on camera.

WINK News plans to follow up with school district officials after our story. We will continue to bring you the latest information as it becomes available.

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