Florida’s official Republican Party Facebook page, along with nine other Florida Republican county Facebook pages, have a page manager located in Turkmenistan, a country in Central Asia with no public affiliation to Florida Republicans or political social media consultants. All ten of the Facebook page managers from Turkmenistan disappeared after Forensic News contacted the Florida GOP page owner for comment.
In addition to the Florida state GOP page, Collier, Flagler, Highlands, Hillsborough, Leon, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Wakulla Counties also showed a Turkmenistan manager. Those pages also show at least one American manager.
Because Facebook does not require page managers to reveal their names, there is no way to know who is managing the pages from Turkmenistan. There was, however, a page owner, the person who runs the entire Florida GOP Facebook page, listed as longtime GOP social media strategist Jordan Gibson.
Ms. Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.
Facebook posts also show Ms. Gibson previously worked as New Media Director for the Republican Party of Hillsborough County, one of the other Florida counties that showed a Facebook page manager located in Turkmenistan. After Forensic News reached out to Ms. Gibson, she was removed as the page owner and replaced by the Republican Party of Florida.
Facebook instituted certain transparency rules in 2019, following a 2016 presidential election in which Internet Research Agency (IRA) employees with strong links to the Russian government created false Facebook pages, personas, and political advertisements to influence American opinions and votes.
In some cases, the IRA played both sides of social issues and organized protests, advancing their “strategic goal to sow discord” in the United States. The IRA is currently fighting a multitude of federal charges in the United States, including criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire fraud, bank fraud, and identity theft.
Facebook’s transparency features allow users to see page creation date, name changes, page owner names, and the location information of page managers. Authentication methods for verifying a user’s real location include phone GPS, IP address, Facebook activity, and self-disclosure by the user.
Turkmenistan is a Central Asian country that sits between Uzbekistan and Iran. Isolated from most of the world, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov controls all functions of state. There is a population of approximately five million people. Corruption is widespread, and Turkmenistan is currently ranked 165 out of 180 by Transparency International. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan last in the world in press freedom, even behind North Korea, in 2019.
From the Reporters Without Borders report:
The Turkmen government controls all media and the few internet users are able to access only a highly-censored version of the internet. But that does not satisfy President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who is also known as “Father Protector.” Harassment of the few journalists who work clandestinely for media outlets based abroad keeps on growing. In recent years, several of these journalists have been arrested, tortured, physically attacked or otherwise forced to stop working
Anna Massoglia, an expert in political advertising and disinformation at Open Secrets DC, said that although there was a possibility that Florida Republicans hired an outside contractor, or data provider, to do their social media, or that a contractor was using a VPN to hide their location, “That’s odd. I’ve seen foreign contractors, but I’ve never seen Turkmenistan”.
Another expert, a current political advertising strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional reasons, said, “Point blank, this is not normal.” That person offered the opinion that not only was it irregular for any political party to outsource social media management to another country, but, “Why would you do that in 2020, after everything that’s happened, knowing the headaches you’re going to have when someone like you, a journalist, starts calling?”
Chris Sampson, a cyber analyst at TAPSTRI Media, said that a political party, “could be outsourcing some of their social media work to companies that definitely could be using third party contractors, but, that being said, I don’t see why the admin should show up the way you’re describing it. There’s something very odd about what you’re seeing.”
Further mystifying was the fact that Turkmenistan’s government maintains total control over their Internet. All major social media sites, including Facebook, are banned. Nor, as stated, are there any known social media management strategists in Turkmenistan.
Facebook and the Republican Party Of Florida did not respond to a request for comment.
Below: Photos of some of the Florida Republican Party pages previously managed from Turkmenistan: