The audience for the March 16 city council campaign kickoff party for Tim Goncharoff, former planner for the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works, will likely be missing a few of Goncharoff’s most key supporters.
Because they don’t exist.
Sources close to the Weekly tipped us off to a collection of several phony accounts on Facebook, each marked by a handful of stock photos of attractive, lingerie-clad women, whose pages are all populated by the exact same postings about local political causes including the plastic bag ban, fracking and needle exchange.
The phony accounts have one other thing in common: They are all avid supporters of 2014 city council candidate Tim Goncharoff. They all regularly share articles and links directly from Goncharoff’s page, often with similar or even the exact same words of support offered.
A 2012 posting on Facebook by the organization “Protect Your Central Coast”—celebrating the passing of two new environmental reform laws that Goncharoff, then county resource planner, worked on—featured comments by seven different phony accounts. “Go Tim!” wrote one. “So great! Good work, Timmy!” wrote the other.
The same accounts were used in 2012 to criticize a posting current county supervisor candidate Ryan Coonerty made about public safety.
“Being a woman of color, I can attest from personal experience to the power of prejudice,” wrote one African American avatar, named Elisa Verde. A Google image search of Verde’s photo leads to a stock photo entitled, “Beautiful Black Woman.”
The accounts have been largely inactive since 2012, but the pages are still up and can be easily searched on Facebook. They regularly communicate with one another, posting supportive comments on each other’s half-nude photographs, asking for suggestions for where to get a Brazilian bikini wax and appearing to coordinate the sharing of lingerie outfits for something called the “Save the Tatas” fashion show. Time stamps on the threads of comments from the various accounts show that the comments are generally made within just a couple minutes of each other—about the amount of time it would take for one user to log in and out of multiple accounts.
Using fake online identities to create the illusion of support for one’s self, causes or company is known as “sock-puppeting.” It’s what John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, was famously investigated for by the Securities and Exchange Commission, when he used a fake online handle to promote his company on Yahoo message boards in 2007.
So who’s responsible for these lovely but hilariously fake puppets? When reached for comment on Monday about his harem of supporters, Goncharoff claimed to know nothing. Later, in email, he said that some of the accounts “seem vaguely familiar.” However, he denied that he or his campaign had anything to do with the accounts.
“Of course, I see a great many people on Facebook, many of whom I don’t actually know,” he wrote. “A lot of people comment on my posts, and some share them. I’m sure you could come up with a much longer list.”
In 2012, Goncharoff posted on his personal Facebook profile a Santa Cruz Sentinel article about new environmental laws. Of the nine comments of support, eight were from the fake accounts.
“Awesome, Tim! You are so inspiring,” posted one fake account, named Solana Gregory. “Yayyy, Tim!” wrote another, Jennifer Mondragon. “Our hero!” wrote still another, Jasmine Guadeloupe.
“If these are old posts, as you said, and people who are not even my Facebook friends, I’m not sure what this has to do with me,” wrote Goncharoff.
Hmm, well, whoever is behind the accounts had to know they were doing something misleading at best, and possibly illegal to boot. (The Santa Cruz District Attorney’s office hadn’t responded as of press time.) The lingerie shots add a certain creepy touch.
“Friends have suggested to me that people in the public eye should avoid social media, and I know many elected officials who do so,” Goncharoff added in his email. “I can certainly see why.” So can we.