A Facebook group known for its controversial content has been met with little pushback from university officials, leaving some students uneasy with how UCF administration handles harassment.
UCF Underground, a closed Facebook group that requires a UCF email address for membership, sprung up last semester and has quickly garnered attention as evidence of the potential negative effects of unchecked Internet speech.
UCF Underground’s no-rules ethos and disarming array of memes contributes to the confusion surrounding its coverage. The web of deception, irony and dismissal spun by its administrators makes it even harder to decipher the group’s true intent. But under the random communist posts and off-color jokes lies a vindictive streak that makes those who challenge its members fear for their safety.
The group is known to some for its posts, like a picture of Michelle Obama leading Melania Trump out of the White House on Inauguration Day, with domestic garbs superimposed on Mrs. Obama’s clothing.
When the Focus attempted to contact members of the group for a story, our reporter’s inbox was quickly filled with message requests from members and an endless stream of Trash Doves – a popular Facebook GIF of a head-banging purple bird used to derail conversation, and in some instances, harass users. Coupled with this, the reporter’s information had been posted in the group with a call for further spamming.
Until recently, the group has managed to lay low, only angering students in UCF’s media and advocacy circles who catch glimpses of questionable comments or alt-right sympathizing posts.
Last week, UCF Underground’s infamy reached national heights when media outlets reported on an event sponsored by the group. Titled “UCF UNDERGROUND: deportation force!” the event called for attendees to meet and rummage through social media for potentially undocumented UCF students. The plan appeared to be to report such students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Last Tuesday, a Florida State student and activist by the Twitter handle @lexi4prez got wind of the event and posted screenshots of it on her account, calling on UCF administration to act. The post received more than 3,500 retweets and 2,500 likes. That same night, UCF Underground members posted on the website 4Chan and called for her “doxxing” – a popular intimidation tactic involving the release of personal information such as full names, phone numbers and addresses.
On Sunday, @lexi4prez tweeted that she felt “extremely paranoid + scared” after the incident. “These people doxxed me and attempted to hurt not only me but my family,” she wrote.
Messages to @lexi4prez for comment were not returned.
“The group is an interesting dynamic because most of it is supposed to be funny satire,” said Manny Orozco Ballestas, a political science senior who is a member of both UCF Underground and the College Democrats. “It’s supposed to be an underground page where everyone is allowed to post something without rules.”
Ballestas, who is also the former head of Hillary Clinton’s campaign effort on campus, told the Focus that the deportation event was a step too far in the group’s quest for laughs.
“I do disconnect a little bit from [the] part of the Democratic Party that has gone too far left in the fact that every single thing is offensive,” Ballestas said. “But, again, for this specific scenario, it’s where I personally draw the line. I, personally, will not tolerate certain sectors of my community to be targeted, whether it is for their immigration status, jokingly or not jokingly.”
Some are stepping up where they feel the university has not. A student who asked to be identified as Jim spoke to the Focus about his organization’s efforts to keep an eye on UCF Underground’s content.
“We basically monitor [the group] and make sure nothing gets out of hand,” Jim said. “We’ve been collecting stuff on people in there.”
Jim is one of the many members of the group driven there by both curiosity and what he perceives as a lack of action from Facebook and university administration.
“It’s essentially shit-posting,” Jim said, using a term that describes the numerous, seemingly meaningless posts often found on message boards. “I think the Internet is going to allow any kind of people to form these groups, but the concern is the association with UCF. And when it gets too far, UCF needs to step in.”
At first glance, UCF Underground reads like a typical message board on the Internet. Its most frequent posters, whose point of pride is a complete disregard for the sensitivity and political correctness associated with left-leaning circles, are mostly white and mostly male.
The group’s rhetoric begs the question: Should the posts be taken at face value, or are they harmless, though incendiary words meant to ridicule the often derided “social justice warriors” and satirize right-wing provocateurs?
“The reason I post in there is for fun,” said one member of the group who asked to be identified as Tyler. “The whole page is just a shit-posting group. I just post stuff in there that I like that I might not want to be seen on my public page.”
“The Underground is not meant to be taken seriously,” Tyler added.
Another student, who asked to be identified as John said that UCF Underground’s offensive culture does not target specific groups of people.
“They seem to make jokes about everybody,” John said. “I think some of the stuff has an element of truth.”
John believes that anonymity emboldens the group’s irreverence (UCF Underground’s leader posts under the moniker “Billy Bob Hancock.” Those with knowledge of the group pin its most controversial posts to two specific UCF students.) He added that the content is very conservative, and people “definitely have a right” to be offended.
“I don’t think anybody should have their lives ruined over this or feel unsafe,” John said of the event. “I think it was supposed to be an inside joke of the group and it got released out, so people obviously are going to think it’s real. They have every right to be affected by it.”
David Oglethorpe, a spokesman for UCF’s Office of Student Involvement, said his office is aware of the group, but has not received any complaints to justify a response to the group’s actions.
“The litmus test is whether or not a threat is a true threat,” Oglethorpe said. “A reasonable person would have to believe that they’re actually going to take action on that threat.”
UCF Underground is a reminder of the lax community guidelines that allow for harmful content to go unchecked in many social media platforms, exemplified in 2013 by Microsoft’s lack of reaction when this woman reported a continuous stream of harassment on Xbox Live.
Some of this was seen in the fake news crisis of 2016, which placed the blame on sites like Facebook for its lack of action in preventing fake and harmful content from spreading on its site.
UCF Underground’s penchant for doxxing highlights how institutions like universities and mainstream media are often slow to act in matters of online harassment. On March 30, the Orlando Sentinel reported that the deportation event’s creator had stepped up and admitted it was all a hoax. Now, screenshots show the group discussing plans for a new event.
“UCF has not responded appropriately so far,” Jim, the student monitor, said. “This is a violation of the rights of students. It should be recognized for what it is: a breeding ground for hate speech.”
Ballestas said he agrees with the UCFPD and Orlando Sheriff’s Office investigation confirmed by UCF spokeswoman Courtney Gilmartin in the Orlando Sentinel. Despite his differing political ideology, Ballestas said that he thinks the far-right posts are exaggerations of the members’ opinions. Still, he said he hopes to remain in the group and believes UCF Underground will outlast this controversy.
This week, the group has posted some of the numerous articles that surfaced about them over the weekend as evidence of their work, with members chiming in with jokes about the pieces and their writers.
“I do believe the group will continue,” Ballestas said. “These kids are, for lack of a better word, relentless.”
Tyler, the UCF Underground member, said that a smaller, more private group with about 100 members has been created following the recent controversy.
It is unknown what consequences, if any, will follow the deportation event’s creation.
“It’s also important to remember that UCF has a student code of conduct, and those who violate it could be subjected to review by the Office of Student Conduct,” Gilmartin told the Orlando Sentinel.
Neither Gilmartin nor the Office of Student Conduct responded to requests from the Focus.
In the meantime, student organizations like the Student Labor Action Project, Knights for Socialism, Planned Parenthood Generation Action and the 11/9 Coalition are taking a stand against UCF Underground by promoting open discussion in a letter addressed to various UCF offices.
“We would like to invite you to take a more active role in directly addressing several incidents that have occurred involving students from our campus,” the letter reads before inviting its readers to a Thursday night town hall. “The group’s continued online harassment … is an increasing threat to the safety of other UCF students.”
Isabelle D’Antonio contributed reporting.