John Sepulvado, a source for comment on the Facebook takedown of the Defend East County group, has been accused of posting videos used in that effort. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Facebook’s Halloween shutdown of the 22,000-member Defend East County group was cheered on social media, especially by John Sepulvado of La Mesa.

The 41-year-old former journalist hailed what he called a 2-month “decentralized” effort by East County activists including himself to take down the group branding itself as DEC.

That Saturday night, in a Facebook chat with Times of San Diego, Sepulvado also credited a tweet by researcher Samantha Kutner, who on Oct. 27 wrote: “The conspiratorial world view of QAnon aimed at a political candidate’s opposition + Defend East County’s ambiguous call to action is more shocking than any horror film you’ll see this Halloween.”

The tweet included screenshots of a video accusing Darrell Issa, the Republican running for the open Congress seat in East County, of protecting pedophiles. The supposedly QAnon-backed video also called on people to “write in” DEC founder Justin Haskins.

Sepulvado — who said he played a part in notifying people at Facebook — called the video “brutal. Tied him to the whole child trafficking thing.”

Now Sepulvado is being accused of having circulated the video himself.

Facebook, which hasn’t responded to requests for comment, could have used any number of reasons to shut down DEC, including alleged threats of violence and racist comments.

But in a 2,000-word story posted Sunday on Left Coast Right Watch, San Diego-based investigative reporter James Stout said Sepulvado circulated the anti-Issa video, including posts on Facebook and in Vimeo and possibly references to it on Reddit.

“Sepulvado is active on Twitter, using the same profile image as the one in the Facebook group to which he uploaded the video,” Stout wrote. “However, as of October 30th, he seems to have deleted all of his tweets. Sepulvado had not previously been hugely vocal about QAnon, according to several sources familiar with his posting.”

Stout said Sepulvado also posted to Reddit under the user name LaCroixorDie.

“It seems likely that Sepulvado is the one sharing and creating these [anti-Issa] memes, or is at the very least linked to them, given that he seems to have early access to the videos and posts before anyone else and that there is overlap between the niche interests of the two accounts,” a reference to a “Greg Ostertag” account that posted to Vimeo.

Sunday night, Sepulvado denied that he was LaCroixorDie.

But when shown the Stout article and asked if he had any comment on suspicions that he was behind the anti-Issa video on Vimeo, he said: “People are gonna believe what they wanna believe. I care whether our community is safe. Our community is safer because of Facebook’s actions.”

He went on: “I didn’t post on DEC’s page, I didn’t force them to be racist or talk about militias or threaten communities of color. But if it’s easier for them to believe a single man orchestrated their entire takedown than a community of people were tired of their racist hostile violent behavior, so be it. I’m a Brown man. I’m used to white people blaming me for their f–k ups.”

Times of San Diego then asked: “Yes or no: Did U post video to Vimeo?”

Sepulvado: “Dude I said what I said.”

Times: “Please understand. I’m giving U a chance to deny accusations.”

Sepulvado: “I just did. And if I’m misrepresented on your site the way I am on theirs it would be sad to know my [fellow La Mesa resident] ran with a really crazy story. I had nothing to do with that posting on DEC. But say whatever you gotta say. All I know is the community is safer.”

After denying that he posted on Reddit as LacroixOrDie, Sepulvado said: “And don’t yes no me anymore. It’s really rude my dude.”

He quit the chat soon after.

The anti-Issa video has been labeled a hoax.

But on Oct. 27, Sepulvado posted a link to the video (since deleted) on a Lemon Grove Facebook page. He said: “I don’t even know what to make of this – But it seems Justin Haskins of Defend East County has launched a write-in campaign against Darrell Issa.”

Haskins, after urging his followers not to write his name on “any ballot for anything,” accused someone else of planting the video.

“That video was made by BIPOC with the help of East County Magazine,” he posted around noon Sunday on his personal Facebook page, Justin N Bama.

Haskins, who runs a business out of Arizona selling DEC merchandise, soon was called out by East County Magazine Editor Miriam Raftery:

“Justin Haskins of the DEC has posted a false and libelous claim accusing East County Magazine of making a ridiculous video bashing Darrell Issa and urging people to write in Haskins,” she wrote Monday. “He needs to remove it and post a retraction, or risk a libel lawsuit.”

Raftery said she was sent a link to the video last week, “vetted it and determined it to be a hoax. We never posted it on our site or anywhere else, and had nothing to do with its creation.”

Hours after this story was posted, editor Raftery emailed Times of San Diego. She said Sepulvado told her: “I did not make the video or anything like that… All I did was flag that video because it represented a major uptick in sophistication.”

Journalist Stout, contacted Monday, said he never suggested Sepulvado made the video and wasn’t sure it ever was actually posted in the DEC group.

“I haven’t really seen DEC on Reddit, so I was shocked to see this start there,” Stout said via Twitter DM. “I would like to think that whoever made it or shared it has had time to think about their actions and trusts the people of East County to make decent moral choices on Election Day without using a terrorist cult to manipulate them.”

Veteran journalist Brooke Binkowski, a San Diego-based expert on social-media disinformation at truthorfiction.com, said Monday that the DEC takedown was the result of a long effort of “courageous people throughout San Diego and beyond who stand against racism, as well as Facebook’s desire to distance itself from rhetorically driven stochastic terrorism, such as that sparked by the same violent QAnon fantasies that Defend East County are such fans of.”

It wasn’t merely a single video, she said.

“This has been an ongoing, very long ordeal that was spearheaded not just by activists but by those of us who know San Diego’s shameful history with white supremacy and the terrible, inevitable results of weaponized disinformation and conspiracy theories,” she said.

She noted how Sepulvado refused to answer questions about posting the video.

“That is abuser behavior,” Binkowski said. “He is gaslighting and insulting you to get his way
and that video had nothing to do with why the group was taken down. It was part of a sweep of QAnon and other disinfo pages.”

She said that without further information it appeared to her that Sepulvado was acting as an instigator and an agitator, “and in no one’s best interest but his own.”

Kutner, the researcher cited by Sepulvado, calls herself “Proud Boys Whisperer” and took part Friday in a webinar titled “U.S. Extremism and the Extreme Right” sponsored by the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism in Ontario, Canada.

Early Tuesday morning, Kutner resisted taking sides over the question of who posted the Issa video. She said via email that she trusted Sepulvado and his “lived experience,” but also trusted Stout’s words that he never suggested Sepulvado made the video.

“I also know Brooke and as an expert in counter disinfo, I trust her opinion as well,” she said. “As academics, we are trained to avoid speculation.”

Kutner, now a research fellow at Khalifa Ihler Institute, added: “What I can affirm is the larger social media effort to remove conspiratorial content likely to incite violence, which Qanon would meet the criteria for.”

Updated at 7:45 a.m. Nov. 3, 2020

Show comments