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The Business of Shaming

After American journalists were murdered in their newsroom, a well-known Louisiana Twitter account taunted The Times-Picayune.

I.

Yesterday afternoon in America, inside a typical office building, a man committed what has unfortunately become a typical American crime: he pulled out a gun and began shooting randomly but with purpose. And within only a minute or two, this man had ended five innocent lives, killing four veteran journalists and a newly-hired sales agent.

All five of the victims worked for a newspaper, The Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, that predates the country itself. The paper’s reporting in 1765 on the Stamp Act has been routinely credited by historians as partly inspiring and influencing the American Revolution.

Like countless other news publications across the country and the world, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy at The Capital Gazette, while SWAT officers were still on the scene and every cable news network was still broadcasting the live feeds of aerial footage from helicopters circling above, The Times-Picayune tweeted a short but poignant message of support for their fellow journalists in Maryland.

Less than a minute later, a man who has anonymously tweeted, for nearly five years, under the name “LA Conservatives” responded.


Julia O’Donoghue, The Times-Picayune‘s capital reporter and one of the state’s best-known journalists, was understandably outraged. “This is so offensive I’ve had to walk away from my computer to calm down. How dare this anonymous account — whose author does not even have the courage to come forward and say who they are — say something like this,” she replied.

This was not the first time that @LAConservative_ had published an incendiary and hateful attack, nor was it the first time the person behind the Twitter handle had been publicly criticized for publishing outrageously offensive commentary.

During the five years he operated under the name @LAConservatives_ (the account was deleted late last night), he had commented on Twitter more than 12,500 times. In the past five months, he was particularly prolific, unusually confrontational, and threatening toward news publications and journalists (I had been the target of his ire on countless occasions, including only minutes after his tweet in response to The Times-Picayune).

O’Donoghue subsequently published a request directed to conservative political operatives in Louisiana.

The tragedy at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland particularly resonated for journalists and editors working here in Louisiana, because so many of the Louisiana press corps are connected to the state of Maryland.

When they were college students at the University of Maryland, Jerry Ceppos, the recently-retired Dean of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, and Kevin Litten, the award-winning reporter for The Times-Picayune, both had served as the editor of the school’s newspaper, The Diamondback. (So too was David Simon, the creator and show-runner of HBO’s “Treme.”) In addition, Melinda Deslatte, Louisiana’s reporter for the Associated Press, Andrew Vanacore, deputy editor of The New Orleans Advocate, and Grace Toohey, The Advocate‘s crime and criminal justice reporter, are also graduates of the University of Maryland.

This hurt.

II.

The ability of citizens to anonymously voice their criticisms and opinions of the government and the powerful is a uniquely American value, and since this country’s inception, the Fourth Estate has continually relied on anonymous sources and writers to expose critically important truths about our democracy.

Yet, in the age of social media and resurgent bigotry, at a time in which the fundamental value of the free press is under attack and members of the press are increasingly targeted by threats of violence at political rallies, characterized, alarmingly, by the President of the United States and his core supporters as “enemies of the American people,” it is critical that we distinguish between those who rely on anonymity as an instrument for the cause of justice and those who use it merely as a tool to terrorize the innocent and wantonly intimidate their critics in the press. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published The Federalist Papers under pseudonyms, their purpose was to debate and articulate a vision for a new democratic republic, one in which, ideally, citizens would be able to enjoy and to celebrate a free press.

I mention this in preface for a reason: because of @LAConservative_’s incendiary remarks (the one yesterday in response to The Times-Picayune may strike some as the most egregious, but there were several others during the past legislative sessions that were similarly repugnant) and because his tweets were frequently shared and endorsed by elected officials, political observers and state reporters have speculated for months about the person’s true identity.

Yesterday afternoon, I decided this was a story worth pursuing, but I recognized that, even if I got to the bottom of it, the story probably wouldn’t merit publication because — despite Julia O’Donoghue’s speculation that he was a paid political operative — more likely than not the man behind the curtain was probably just a random troll.

It was not easy to piece any of this together. The account seemed to deliberately obscure anything that even remotely connected with an actual human being, and because it was also clear this was not a bot, it was obvious that the person must have had a fairly sophisticated understanding of social media.

But the investigative journalist Jonathan Walczak, who is also based in New Orleans, publicly uncovered one crucial clue: The now-defunct Facebook page that had been connected to the Twitter account.

As the page discloses, the site was launched in August of 2013 and was once called La Politics 24/7.

The Twitter account @LAConservative_ was also launched in August 2013 and was also tied to the page LA Politics 24/7, and obviously, the accounts all use the same exact profile picture and a banner image of the United States Capitol. (The defunct @LAPolitics247 Twitter account was tied in with @LAConservative_ as well, frequently sharing the same stories within seconds of one another, which is fairly definitive evidence that they were managed by the same individual).

Still, there was no actual human being named anywhere as the owner or proprietor of the page, but Walczak recalled another critical detail: LAPolitics247.com was once listed as the page’s official domain, and it had similarly gone defunct. Find out who registered that domain, he suggested, and you may be able to piece together the puzzle.

He was right. Although you need some pretty sophisticated tools to unmask the registrant of a site that has been defunct for four years, the information can still be located.

And I found a name.

Then, I found a whole lot more.

III.
Not surprisingly, LAPolitics247.com was also registered in August of 2013, only a week after the Twitter and Facebook accounts were created. It does not appear as if the website had ever been built, and it certainly didn’t last long either way.

The website was registered to a man from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

His name is Damon Ryan Roberson.

To be abundantly clear, as a result, it is impossible to state with certainty that Roberson was the author of that particular offensive tweet.

However, following exhaustive and comprehensive research of all available records, one thing is certain: Damon Ryan Roberson is the only name actually associated with the account’s ownership.

I have made repeated efforts to contact Roberson for comment, through several different channels, and as of the time of publication, he has yet to respond.

Curiously, though, within only a few hours after I reached out, Roberson locked down both his Facebook and personal Twitter accounts, and he removed the majority of the content from his business’s website, most notably the page that had listed all of his professional clients.

Damon Ryan Roberson

At first glance, it is entirely understandable why some may have legitimate concerns about the ethics of exposing the name and identity of the person responsible for (at the very least) facilitating the creation of an anonymous Twitter account, an anonymous Facebook page, and a defunct website about Republican politics in Louisiana. After all, his name is likely not recognizable or even vaguely familiar to the overwhelming majority of Louisiana political observers.

Prior to my decision, I solicited advice and input from a number of people via Facebook, without disclosing to any of them any identifiable details about Roberson. While the overwhelming majority argued in favor of disclosure, a handful of respondents raised some serious threshold questions pertaining to relevance, newsworthiness, and the concerns about DOXXING (to that end, I have redacted his most current available contact information from the documentation, despite the fact that most of these documents are public records anyway).

I take all of those considerations seriously, but there are several compelling and important reasons to call attention to his association. And although the @LAConservative_  account is no longer online (whether by the owner’s choice or as a result of complaints), nearly every political observer in the state, especially those who intently followed the past legislative sessions, can attest the tweet yesterday was one of thousands that recklessly and spitefully undermined our civic discourse and bullied political critics. Moreover, lawmakers paid attention to the account.

So, the obvious question is: Who is this person associated with the account?

IV.
Damon Ryan Roberson (he goes alternately by either Damon Roberson or Ryan Roberson) is a self-proclaimed social media expert and “reputation manager” with professional ties to the Louisiana Republican Party, the Florida Republican Party, the Republican National Committee, former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and current U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy.

He currently lives in Florida and is the owner and sole employee of a company called the Florida Digital Media Group. Here is how he describes himself on the company’s LinkedIn page:

Damon Roberson is a seasoned Digital strategist with ten years of experience working with numerous companies and political campaigns. Damon began his Digital and Social Media career in 2006, when he was selected as one of the first interns for the new digital division of the Republican National Committee. In addition, Damon interned for Former Louisiana Congressman Jim McCrery, Former Louisiana State Senator Mike Smith, and United States Senator David Vitter. Other professional experience includes stints with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office, Louisiana Secretary of State, and the lobbying firm Haynie & Associates. Damon holds a B.A. from Northwestern State University and a M.P.A. from Louisiana State University. Damon currently serves on the Executive Board of the Republican Business Club of Miami and resides in Miami Beach, Florida.

According to campaign finance reports, he was also a consultant for then-Louisiana State Treasurer John Neely Kennedy.

Reports from the Federal Elections Commission also reveal Roberson was paid for political work, both while living in Louisiana and in Florida.

As I mentioned earlier, Roberson removed the list of his clients from the website of his consulting company, Florida Digital Media Group, but unfortunately for him, I had already captured the page:

Roberson may be the only social media expert and “reputation manager” in the entire country whose current Twitter account looks like this:

V.
It is worth reiterating: I am not definitively stating that Roberson is responsible for taunting the newsroom of The Times-Picayune, only that, according to publicly-available records, he purchased the website associated with the account.

And I fully anticipate that some may suggest this entire story is an overblown attempt at public shaming. Admittedly, that had been my primary concern, even though the paper trail, at the very least, provides ample reason to call attention to Roberson’s association.

But then, I uncovered one additional detail that convinced me that Damon Ryan Roberson deserves scrutiny.

In addition to his work in political consulting, Roberson owns one other business, based right here in Louisiana.

He is the sole owner of a company called The Cenla Report LLC.

What, exactly, is The Cenla Report?

Chances are that if you are from Central Louisiana and active on social media, you’ve probably encountered it before. Its Facebook page has nearly 15,000 followers; the email address listed on the page is Roberson’s personal address.

Although it calls itself a “news aggregation website” (Roberson let the domain lapse in May of this year), the page and its associated Twitter account are almost exclusively a constantly updated stream of mugshots of people arrested in Sabine and Vernon Parishes (with occasional posts about recent deaths, car accidents, and at least a couple shaming legislators who voted to renew a portion of the state sales tax in order to solve the fiscal cliff).


Roberson, it turns out, is in the business of public shaming, and I regret that the only way to illustrate this is to include the above screencapture.

You may wonder: What can someone do if they were arrested for a crime they did not commit, only to find that their mugshot was shared on a Facebook page followed by nearly 15,000 members of their community in rural Louisiana?

Well, fortunately, they’re in luck. Send an email to the person who publishes the page. It just so happens he is a professional reputation manager.

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