Mall of America used fake Facebook account to spy on activists

Screencaps and public records sent to Fox 9 by local data researcher Tony Webster indicate that a Mall of America security guard created a fake Facebook page to spy on Black Lives Matter activists. 

The information indicates an MOA "Intelligence Analyst" named Sam Root lifted photos from one of his Facebook friends -- we'll call her Jenna -- and used them to create another profile under the name "Nikki Larson."

Related -- Mall of America wanted to trespass pro-Black Lives Matter Lush employees for 6 months

As you can see in the screencap at the top of this post, Larson's Facebook banner image contained a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. The account was then used to "friend" activists involved in a December 20 Black Lives Matter demonstration that shut down part of the mall for a spell.

Some of the information gathered by Larson's account from "friends only" Facebook posts published by activists was subsequently turned over to Bloomington city prosecutors, who ended up charging 11 activists with misdemeanors.

Reached for comment today, Jenna tells Fox 9 that she never gave Root consent to lift her photos and use them in the way he apparently did.

"No I did not give consent for my photos to be used," Jenna writes. "I was alerted to this by another journalist, so I made a complaint to Facebook... I do know Sam Root." (Read more about Root in this Sun Current story.)

In an in-depth report about the so-called "catfishing" incident, The Intercept reports that as of late January, Root no longer works for the MOA. It's unclear whether the end of his employment at the mall is related to the Larson account, which was deleted just days ago, shortly after The Intercept contacted the MOA seeking comment on the catfishing incident.

In an email to Fox 9, Bloomington City Attorney Sandy Johnson tells Fox 9 she had no knowledge of the MOA's catfishing.

"Whatever data MOA might have gathered in this manner was not provided to my office and therefore was not taken into consideration when bringing the charges," she writes.

"While I did not know the MOA may have been monitoring Facebook, whenever a group organizes an event using Facebook and makes their posts very accessible to the public in order to garner greater public participation in, and support for, their event- that group risks being monitored by other interested individuals, including those who may not approve of the event," Johnson adds. "The use of social media provides both an opportunity and a risk; you need to do a cost or risk/ benefit analysis before making this type of posting."

An MOA spokesperson reached for comment this afternoon said mall officials are working on a statement, but aren't ready to release it yet. We'll update this story when they do.

:::: UPDATE ::::

In a statement, Mall of America officials say that while they don't follow specific social media accounts because of a user's political views, they do "track conversations that may pose a security concern."

Here's the full text:

The safety and security of our guests is the number one priority at Mall of America. To ensure that safety, our security teams use a careful combination of physical means, some of which our guests can see and many of which they cannot see, as well as digital means such as social media. We do not follow individuals or groups based on political viewpoints however we do track conversations that may pose a security concern. These conversations may include unauthorized illegal protests, potential criminal activity or harmful acts on Mall of America property. For obvious reasons, we don't go into detail about all of those security measures. The goal is, and always will be, to protect Mall guests and create a safe and enjoyable environment for the whole family.
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