In search of 'James Galan': How seemingly fake social media accounts permeate Alberta politics

"James Galan" is friends with dozens of high-profile and high-powered Albertans — on Facebook, at least — but in real life, no one seems to know him.

Look closely and you'll find plenty of opinionated 'people' who use stock images as profile photos

These Facebook accounts use stock images as their profile photos and have been active in commenting on Alberta politics. (Facebook/Screenshots)

"James Galan" is friends with dozens of high-profile and high-powered Albertans — on Facebook, at least — but in real life, no one seems to know him.

Among his Facebook friends are at least 10 current and former MLAs, a half-dozen municipal politicians in Calgary, a few MPs, several journalists and even Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms who shot the Parliament Hill attacker in 2014.

But CBC News contacted a sampling of those politicians and journalists, and none know who's behind the "James Galan" account — which uses a picture of Chinese actor Chen Dao Ming as its profile photo — or other seemingly fake profiles that follow a similar pattern.

Some of the accounts are more active than others, but "James Galan" seems to be the most prolific at befriending politicians and posting online comments about issues of the day. These types of tactics, experts say, are increasingly popular for their ability to influence public opinion. They've also been mirrored in a recent surge of fake Twitter accounts targeting a Calgary city councillor, Druh Farrell.

As recently as last week, the Galan Facebook account was being used to criticize Farrell in the comments section of news stories about the knife-gesture incident involving her fellow councillor, Ward Sutherland.

But the account's online presence goes back as far as 2015, when it was posting frequently about former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis.

Denis denies knowing 'Galan'

"Galan" has appeared especially interested in Denis, commenting on numerous news stories that relate to the former MLA, who now practises law with the firm Guardian Law Group LLP in Calgary.

In addition, "Galan" has commented in defence of Denis personally on stories about the former cabinet minister's divorce, which played out in public view amid the 2015 provincial election in which Denis lost his seat.

While Denis is now out of politics, he maintains a lively political discussion on his own Facebook page, where his thousands of friends engage in almost daily debate — and the Galan account is a frequent contributor.

Denis even mentioned Galan by name in a post last fall, where he mused about starting a blog to replace his Facebook page, as it was approaching the social media site's limit of 5,000 friends.

A post from former justice minister Jonathan Denis mentioning the frequent contributions of 'James Galan' to the political discourse on his Facebook page. (Names of other people mentioned have been greyed out.) (Facebook/Screenshot)

But Denis told CBC News he doesn't actually know "James Galan."

He noted he routinely accepts friend requests from people he doesn't know, so that they can participate in the discussion.

He also said it's possible he mixed up the "James Galan" account with an acquaintance — an actual person named James Galan who works as a personal injury lawyer in Toronto and is also among Denis's Facebook friends.

"Frankly, I presumed that the James Galan [who's been commenting] on my Facebook was the mutual acquaintance, but again have never communicated with him directly," Denis said in an email.

Lawyer James Galan surprised by all this

When contacted by CBC News, the Toronto-based lawyer named James Galan was surprised by the existence of the "James Galan" account that has been commenting on Alberta politics.

The lawyer said he is not behind the account.

He also said he did not write two letters to the editor that ran in the Calgary Herald under the name "James Galan, Calgary" in August 2015 and October 2016, both relating to provincial politics.

The editorial page editor at the Calgary Herald said he found a phone number in the newspaper's email records that was attached to those letter submissions and called it Wednesday, leaving a voicemail on behalf of CBC News. As of publication time, there was no reply.

CBC News also sent a message and a friend request directly to the Galan Facebook account on Tuesday. So far, there has been no reply.

Connections to other seemingly fake accounts

The "James Galan" account is one of several seemingly fake profiles that have been used to comment on the same stories with similar points of view.

There's also "Stacey Colins," who has chimed in with comments of her own criticizing Druh Farrell, the Calgary city councillor.

Reverse image searches reveal her Facebook cover photo is a stock photograph described as a "middle-aged woman."

For her profile photo, she uses a "happy family on the beach" stock image.

The 'Stacey Colins' Facebook account might look like a real person at first glance but actually uses stock images sourced online as its profile and cover photos. (Screenshots/composite image)

Stock images are also used in the online personas of "Stacey Cool" and "Lori Sanders," who have commented in several online forums about Jonathan Denis's divorce.

Denis is also Facebook friends with both of those accounts but denied knowing either of them as real people.

"I do not personally know anyone named Stacey Cool or Lori Sanders to the best of my recollection," he said.

Stolen image of a real person

There was another, similar account that went by the name "Tim Mather" but used a photo of a real person named Adam Mather.

It appears to have been created an hour before commenting on a story about Denis's election loss, alongside a comment from "James Galan."

The 'Tim Mather' account that commented on this story about Jonathan Denis on the Calgary Herald website was taken down after a real person named Adam Mather contacted Facebook about it using his image at its profile photo. (Calgary Herald screenshot)

The "Tim Mather" account had only two listed friends — one of which was "James Galan."

The account was taken down shortly after CBC News contacted Adam Mather, who works for a home-building company in Toronto, and he complained to Facebook about the use of his image.

Provocateurs 'a bit like pirates'

Acting as an online "provocateur" is an increasingly popular political tactic, said Bruce Cameron with Social Media ROI, a consulting firm that specializes in digital communication.

He said the "murky" nature of the agents' identities makes them "a bit like pirates" who used to roam the ocean, attacking ships and plundering gold without a defined allegiance or specific mission.

Sometimes the pirates were acting of their own accord, he said, sometimes at the behest of a particular nation, or sometimes they had overlapping interests.

"It's really like the high seas right now," Cameron said of the world of online politics.

Tom Keenan, a University of Calgary professor and digital security expert, said people on the fringes of politics sometimes have a motivation to act in a deceptive manner online.

Tom Keenan is a University of Calgary professor and the author of Technocreep, a book about digital security and privacy. (CBC)

"I think the political value is for clandestine operatives who maybe aren't in the political world themselves — but think they are — and want to go out there and pull the tail of some politician, but they won't do it face to face," he said.

There is also value, he added, in having seemingly real people comment on news stories and engage in the public discourse.

"Studies have shown that people tend to believe stuff on Facebook that comes from like-minded people," Keenan said.

"So if you're following and linked up to other people who think like you, sure enough, if they say something, even if it's a little bit outrageous, you're probably not going to check it. You're going to go out there and believe it."

Twitter accounts target Farrell, supporters

Meanwhile, a flood of recently created Twitter accounts have been targeting Farrell and her supporters this week.

At least eight accounts that appear to have been created in the past few days have been attacking the city councillor and her supporters, many devolving into name-calling and personal insults.

The criticisms relate largely to a lawsuit recently launched against Farrell by a Calgary family — through the Guardian Law Group — over an application to redevelop their high-end restaurant Osteria de Medici that council rejected in 2015.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court and Farrell has yet to file a statement of defence.

The onslaught of tweets came after a mysterious ad that was posted to online classified site Kijiji over the weekend, offering work to social media users with "Conservative views" and an "interest in municipal and federal politics."

"Project starts Tuesday, May 23," read the ad. "Contractors will be paid per post/share/comment."

It's not clear who posted the ad or whether it was genuine.

Last week, prior to the ad's appearance, Farrell said her staff were kept busy sorting through a host of comments that had started to flood her professional Facebook page regarding the Sutherland spat.

"They were defending the behaviour of councillor Sutherland and calling me out," she said. "There was a general theme against me."

Calgary city councillor Druh Farrell is being sued by Rocco Terrigno and Terrigno Investments Inc. The lawsuit, revealed this week, seeks Farrell's removal from office and more than $200,000 in damages. (CBC)

Farrell's staff also noticed many of the accounts seemed fake and used stock photos as profile pictures.

She said she welcomes public debate and deliberately has an extensive presence on social media for that purpose, but she has "no patience" for people who hide behind fake accounts.

"I don't have the energy to engage with somebody who doesn't have the courage to speak with their own voice," she said.

"But I have endless energy to discuss and debate and talk about issues with people who are brave enough to put their names behind it."


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.