Far-right trolls communicating on message boards are trying to shut down a Pennsylvania form intended for the public to report businesses shirking the government’s social-distancing orders.
The online activists, calling the portal a “snitch form” — phrasing also used by at least two Pennsylvania lawmakers — have in recent days encouraged one another to submit false reports through the portal to render the form useless and sow political and social discord.
The portal was launched six days ago, and it’s been flooded with more than 5,000 submissions.
“Many of the complaints have been and continue to be inappropriate,” Department of Health spokesperson Nate Wardle said Wednesday by email. People who fill out the form should have “a genuine public health concern about a business.”
On Wednesday, the left-leaning nonprofit Media Matters released a report highlighting the activity, showing 4chan and Reddit users urging each other to get the portal “shut down” and to “make it useless," either by reporting entities such as Planned Parenthood or targeting Jews and people of color.
Some users posted that they had reported the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Others said they had used the form to complain about synagogues. On a message board for supporters of President Donald Trump, users posted receipts of their submissions and encouraged one another to “flood the form.”
Users on far-right message boards have seized on other tip-lines this year in coordinated efforts, including a coronavirus-related tip-line in New York City and the hotline for Iowa Democratic caucus results.
Sharon Kann, research director at Media Matters, said it’s difficult to ascribe a motivation to communities online like this, but “planned chaos” is a tenet.
“There’s an incentive to sow discord wherever possible,” she said, adding that the pandemic and partisan bickering over how to restart the economy provide an opportunity for trolls to “seize on areas of tension.”
Pennsylvania’s business complaint form was initially developed for employees worried their employers weren’t following the state’s orders aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. Since the state mandated all members of the public to wear masks while in businesses that remain open, the form became a place for anyone with a business complaint.
Wardle said that once a complaint is submitted, it’s forwarded to the appropriate agency, whether that’s a complaint about a food-processing plant going to the Department of Agriculture, or a non-licensed facility being reported to the Department of Health.
More in-depth investigations might be completed by the Department of Labor and Industry, he said, but the state’s preference is to first warn businesses of potential violations before fines are levied or further action is taken.
All agencies involved are working through how to deal with the quantity of submissions, Wardle said.
In recent days, the form has also drawn criticism from some lawmakers and business leaders, including State Rep. Dawn Keefer (R., York and Cumberland), who referred to the system as “a snitch line, essentially, so that you can tattle on your businesses in your community.”
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) used similar phrasing in a Facebook post criticizing the “snitch” form, saying that “encouraging neighbors to turn in neighbors for ‘non-compliance’ directly tramples upon our lives," and “the Wolf administration should immediately cease and desist from these Orwellian activities.”
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, responding to the criticism this week, said the state “at no time want[s] to be big brother.”
“I actually believe that a lot of the information that we have received has been rather positive," she said.