On May 23 2023, several social media posts popped up with the jarring claim that a majority of book removal or book ban requests in American schools were an effort by the same eleven individuals:
An initial news search led to a December 2022 KUTV article, “Only [a] small group of parents utilizing new law to help ban books in Utah school libraries.” The story focused on Utah specifically, and it identified a small but vocal minority of individuals with a group called “Utah Parents United”:
In the last legislative session, proponents of Utah House Bill 374 argued passionately that Utah school libraries were inundated with unsuitable reading materials.
Parents, most of them associated with the group Utah Parents United, were at nearly every hearing for the bill that would codify in law, the banning of inappropriate material on Utah school shelves … Using public records requests and a report from the Utah State Board of Education, we discovered that a little more than three dozen parents across the state have lodged complaints.
In one school district, Granite, a West Valley City couple was behind nearly every complaint filed with the district. Of the 205 filings, Nick and Hailey Foster were behind 199 of them.
Further searching led to a March 13 2023 report by literary rights and advocacy group PEN America, “These Books Are Banned In Martin County, Florida.” PEN America correctly noted that “the majority of these books were removed in response to a single objector in the district”:
Last week, Martin County, Florida, released a list of dozens of books it had removed from school libraries, including 20 books by Jodi Picoult, nine books from James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, and two books by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. Some were removed from multiple locations, for a total of 92 book bans.
It appears that the majority of these books were removed in response to a single objector in the district, a local leader with the group Moms For Liberty, who filed forms indicating that she did not actually read any of the books in question. Complaints erroneously stated that all of Jodi Picoult’s books are “adult romance,” and alleged that former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds is “controversial.” John Green’s Looking for Alaska was targeted for being “depressing.”
On May 17 2023, Vox.com covered the broad push to force a partisan agenda on school boards across the United States. The article was primarily about infiltration of school boards by far right activists, largely through the lens of banned books and “restricted” books:
Tuesday night [May 16 2023]’s school board elections in Pennsylvania and Oregon again showed how classrooms continue to be a front in the Republican Party’s broader culture war, a battle it has pursued in states across the country with mixed results … The races are part of Republicans’ national push to politicize once-sleepy school board races, using them as a vehicle to curb discussion of race and gender issues in the classroom and give parents more power over curriculums. Across the country, school board members backed by the GOP have banned seminal works of literature, from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but not without backlash.
Nationally, parents have become increasingly worried about the GOP’s book-banning push and have cooled somewhat on the curriculum concerns that dominate Republicans’ education platform. An April  Fox News poll found that 77 percent of parents are extremely or very concerned about local school board book bans, an 11-point increase since May 2022. Though 73 percent of those polled remained anxious about what is taught in public schools, that’s 7 points lower than  …
Both Reddit posts linked to a paywalled May 23 2023 Washington Post article. Reddit u/washingtonpost excerpted the article in a comment, which said in part:
Books about LGBTQ people are fast becoming the main target of a historic wave of school book challenges — and a large percentage of the complaints come from a minuscule number of hyperactive adults, a first-of-its-kind Washington Post analysis found.
A stated wish to shield children from sexual content is the main factor animating attempts to remove LGBTQ books, The Post found. The second-most common reason cited for pulling LGBTQ texts was an explicit desire to prevent children from reading about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary and queer lives.
The Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year with the 153 school districts that Tasslyn Magnusson, a researcher employed by free expression advocacy group PEN America, tracked as receiving formal requests to remove books last school year. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.
The Post analyzed the complaints to determine who was challenging the books, what kinds of books drew objections and why. Nearly half of filings — 43 percent — targeted titles with LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36 percent targeted titles featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism. The top reason people challenged books was “sexual” content; 61 percent of challenges referenced this concern.
In nearly 20 percent of the challenges, petitioners wrote that they wanted texts pulled from shelves because the titles depict lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, homosexual, transgender or nonbinary lives. Many challengers wrote that reading books about LGBTQ people could cause children to alter their sexuality or gender.
A small number of people were responsible for most of the book challenges, The Post found. Individuals who filed 10 or more complaints were responsible for two-thirds of all challenges. In some cases, these serial filers relied on a network of volunteers gathered together under the aegis of conservative parents’ groups such as Moms for Liberty.
An archived copy of the Washington Post article contained a section labeled “The power of serial book challengers.” It described a review of more than a thousand “book challenges,” substantiating the “11 people” claim:
The majority of the 1,000-plus book challenges analyzed by The Post were filed by just 11 people.
Each of these people brought 10 or more challenges against books in their school district; one man filed 92 challenges. Together, these serial filers constituted 6 percent of all book challengers — but were responsible for 60 percent of all filings.
A May 23 2023 youthtoday.org article contained similar findings, reporting:
[A] recent dispute at Pinellas County Schools comes as an unprecedented number of books are being challenged or taken off the shelves.
“We are living in a very disturbing time,” said American Library Association president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada. “This is the highest number of book bans that we have tracked since we started tracking them 20 years ago” … ALA documented 1,269 attempts to ban books at school and public libraries in 2022, nearly double the number of attempts in 2021.
The organization reported 32% of those attempts included multiple titles.
Pelayo-Lozada said some of these challenges were part of organized campaigns by groups that contested over 100 titles at once versus previous years when libraries might have received a complaint about a single book. She described the book challengers driving this new effort as a “very vocal minority;” a recent ALA survey found 71% of voters are against book bans.
Meanwhile, PEN reported 1,477 books banned at school districts during the first half of the 2022-23 school year.
Right-wing group Moms For Liberty was identified for coordinating “book challenges,” as experts warned of encroaching censorship in libraries and schools:
Book censorship is nothing new in American history, according to University of Pennsylvania education history professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who points to the 1920s, when Americans fought over textbooks that taught evolution, and to the height of the Cold War, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy attacked books that were deemed un-American.
But this modern push is different, Zimmerman said.
Leading the charge to contest book titles has been Moms for Liberty, a national group with local chapters whose members often run for local school board offices or file challenges over books.
“I do think that the volume is unprecedented because groups like Moms for Liberty have managed to nationalize the question in ways it hasn’t been before,” said Zimmerman.
PEN America’s involvement with the escalating push to ban books was not limited to tracking them via spreadsheet and monitoring literary censorship. On May 17 2023, WTVD-TV reported that the group had signed on with publisher Penguin Random House in a lawsuit against a Florida school district.
Once again, a sharp uptick in “book challenges” appeared in the article:
PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free expression, and Penguin Random House, one of the country’s largest book publishers, filed a lawsuit Wednesday [May 17 2023] targeting a Florida school district for removing certain books from the shelves of public school libraries.
Authors and parents of children affected by the book bans in the Escambia County School District have also joined the federal lawsuit, which is asking for books to be returned to school libraries.
A record-breaking 1,269 demands were made to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since the American Library Association began collecting data over 20 years ago, the association said.
A record 2,571 unique books were targeted for censorship in 2022, a 38% increase from 2021 when 1,858 titles were targeted.
Again, ancillary details of the reporting revealed that one individual, in this case a teacher, sought to remove more than a hundred books from the district:
Members of the school board declined ABC News’ requests for comment. Local news outlet Pensacola News Journal reported that the district purged their book selection after a teacher challenged more than 100 books for [allegedly] inappropriate content.
Across scattered news stories, a clear theme emerged; “book challenges” remained on the rise, with repeated references to high-volume “objectors.” The December 2022 article from Utah found that one couple was responsible for 199 of 205 challenges, and the Washington Post‘s larger data set found that “serial filers constituted 6 percent of all book challengers — but were responsible for 60 percent of all filings.”
In the context of politically motivated disinformation, that activity was instantly recognizable as inauthentically coordinated behavior, a concept we have repeatedly examined. Coordinated disinformation campaigns are a form of information warfare, closely related to “memetic warfare” and weaponized flash mob-style activities.
In June 2021, we identified coordinated disinformation campaigns in relation to schools and school boards:
An inauthentically organized, corrosive disinformation campaign taking direct aim at social resilience and anti-racism pushes has taken over school boards throughout the United States in what appears to be a highly coordinated national push — which as of June 2021 has made its way from local school boards all the way into state laws.
These hastily-written, often highly vague laws ban critical race theory, which has been an established academic concept for more than four decades … The moral panic around critical race theory (oftened shortened to simply “CRT”) and also threatening ethnic studies programs is the end result of a weaponized disinformation and propaganda campaign that has also been ongoing for decades. As a result, no one attacking it seems to be able to define it, but Republican-led states have moved swiftly to ban it …
In January 2023, inauthentic coordination came up in relation to a purported controversy over M&Ms. In February 2023, we examined a seahorse book ban in Tennessee, which happened to be inauthentically coordinated by Moms for Liberty, of course:
Google News content about Tennessee, seahorses, and book bans primarily involved material published in late September 2021. A Salon.com item, “‘Moms for Liberty’ group demands schools ban books with ‘sexy’ pictures of seahorses,” attributed efforts to “ban” seahorse lessons to far-right, inauthentically organized “moms” groups. One of the previous efforts of Moms for Liberty was an attempt to drum up a moral panic about CRT, or critical race theory …
Facebook addressed inauthentic coordination on their own platform in December 2018, in a video-based newsroom post titled “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Explained.” In August 2018, Facebook disclosed that the activity was difficult to identify and remove because the campaigns were extraordinarily well funded:
We ban this kind of behavior because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook. And while we’re making progress rooting out this abuse, as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge because the people responsible are determined and well funded. We constantly have to improve to stay ahead. That means building better technology, hiring more people and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies. Their collaboration was critical to our investigation since no one company can fight this on their own.
In a section labeled “What We’ve Found So Far,” Facebook nebulously described how effective the practice could be, using a single bad actor as a case study, “Liberty Front Press”:
We’ve removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US. FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, gave us a tip in July  about “Liberty Front Press,” a network of Facebook Pages as well as accounts on other online services. They’ve published an initial analysis and will release a full report of their findings soon. We wanted to take this opportunity to thank them for their work.
Based on FireEye’s tip, we started an investigation into “Liberty Front Press” and identified additional accounts and Pages from their network. We are able to link this network to Iranian state media through publicly available website registration information, as well as the use of related IP addresses and Facebook Pages sharing the same admins. For example, one part of the network, “Quest 4 Truth,” claims to be an independent Iranian media organization, but is in fact linked to Press TV, an English-language news network affiliated with Iranian state media. The first “Liberty Front Press” accounts we’ve found were created in 2013. Some of them attempted to conceal their location, and they primarily posted political content focused on the Middle East, as well as the UK, US, and Latin America. Beginning in 2017, they increased their focus on the UK and US. Accounts and Pages linked to “Liberty Front Press” typically posed as news and civil society organizations sharing information in multiple countries without revealing their true identity.
Facebook’s ongoing reports on its attempts to identify coordinated disinformation campaigns were heavy on technical jargon, but rarely offered a concise explanation for why such campaigns were such an insidious threat. Excerpts above touched “book bans” or “book challenges,” which remain consistently unpopular among the general public.
That aspect of the issue was addressed in our December 2020 page about “firehosing,” in which coordinated campaigns align with inflicted information fatigue:
[Disinformation on social media] is also one of the strongest weapons that social media can be harnessed to use against the public at large by offering a speed and scale previously undreamed of by even the most ardent propagandist. What is one surefire way to erase the recent past from the public consciousness in order to write over it on a newly clean historic slate?
You flood it out, of course. “Firehosing” is a Kremlin-originated technique that the Rand Corporation called in a 2016 report, “the firehose of falsehood,” and which indicted fraudster Steve Bannon, inexplicably regarded as a political genius for far too long, called “flooding the zone with shit.” Both analogies are accurate. The “flood” or the “firehose” is a relentless spray of factual and counterfactual stories, emotional pleas and emotional violence, and abusive rhetoric and invective that so quickly gets carried over into national and global conversations and from there into policy that there is almost no time to fact-check it.
Repetition leads to familiarity and in turn, acceptance or resignation. This spray of false, misleading, or decontextualized information has another insidious and very deliberate secondary effect over time: Journalists and fact-checkers (those wielders of squirt guns) become burned out, and so too becomes the public at large; people become dispirited, disheartened, and unable to see beyond the immediate present to a brighter future, much less fight for it.
In July 2020, a Slate.com writer set out to define coordinated inauthentic campaigns, citing an example involving Facebook and the partisan right-wing site Daily Wire. That story touched on hesitancy on Facebook’s part to act on coordinated inauthentic behavior, for fear of bad press:
Facebook’s definition is only a small part of the question, not least because most of the activity took place on other platforms. (TikTok has an even more opaque standard of its version of [coordinated inauthentic behavior] CIB, which I fear we’re going to learn more about the hard way.)
The same cannot be said of another [then] recent CIB controversy. In Popular Information, Judd Legum described how a network of 14 purportedly independent large Facebook pages drove traffic to the conservative site the Daily Wire, one of the most popular publications on Facebook, including by publishing the same articles at the same time with the same text. As New York Times writer Charlie Warzel put it, “seems coordinated and inauthentic to me.” Facebook’s chief CIB hunter explained, again on Twitter, that CIB is reserved for the most egregious violations and this didn’t meet the threshold because the accounts weren’t fake (although the company did admit to Popular Information today, months after Legum’s original reporting, that the pages were breaking its rules on branded content). The New York Times has previously reported that Facebook’s reluctance to act against these pages was driven by fear of appearing biased against conservatives, which Facebook disputes.
Coordinated inauthentic behavior or disinformation campaigns are often mentioned, but their purpose and function are rarely articulated. Coordinated disinformation is, among other things, exceptionally useful to create the intentionally false impression that highly unpopular, even anti-American initiatives — such as “book challenges” — have “grassroots” support.
That hesitancy on the part of Facebook and other platforms was also present in polling data. A May 2023 YouGov.com poll on the subject of book bans indicated that a majority of Americans opposed them and broke down the numbers:
Book bans divide Americans — there is no clear majority when it comes to whether books should be removed from public libraries or public school spaces. However, there is more support for banning books from classrooms and school libraries (46% of Americans say there are times when this is needed) than there is for removing books from public libraries (31% say this can be necessary).
Three in five Republicans (63%) say there are times when books or novels should be banned from schools — higher than the shares of Independents (41%) or Democrats (38%) who agree. Republicans are also more likely (42%) than Democrats (28%) or Independents (24%) to support banning books from public libraries in some instances.
On May 23 2023, several social media posts indicated that “only 11” individuals were responsible for a majority of “book challenges,” based on data supplied by PEN America to the Washington Post. News about “book challenges” often included information about one or two people filing 100 or more challenges per district, with right-wing organization Moms For Liberty regularly linked to the issue. Broadly, the story was one about inauthentically coordinated behavior at scale — an extremely efficient tool of propagandists, which is consistently used to fabricate popular support for deeply unpopular ideas.
Update, August 29 2023, 4:19 PM: On August 24 2023, Florida’s Tampa Bay Times published a similar analysis, “Florida schools got hundreds of book complaints — mostly from 2 people.”
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed around 1,100 “book challenges” filed in the state of Florida, dating back to July 2022. Of the 1,100 complaints, 600 were filed by two individuals in two counties:
… Most of Florida’s 67 school districts didn’t log a single formal complaint about a book. That’s based on a Tampa Bay Times analysis, the most comprehensive review of book complaints across the state.
Of the roughly 1,100 complaints recorded in Florida since July 2022, more than 700 came from two counties — Escambia in the western Panhandle and Clay near Jacksonville. Together the two districts make up less than 3% of the state’s total public school enrollment.
About 600 of the complaints came from two people — a Clay County dad and an Escambia County high school teacher.
The data illustrates how a tiny minority of activists across the state can overwhelm school districts while shaping the national conversation over what books belong on school library shelves.
The Times requested all book complaints received by Florida school districts since July 1, 2022, when guidelines governing the challenges went into effect. Sixty-two districts responded, representing nearly 99% of public school students.
By way of further contrast, the outlet found Florida’s ten “largest districts, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, each reported complaints on fewer than 15 titles” in the period of time reviewed. The Tampa Bay Times identified the “Clay County dad” as a man named Bruce Friedman, and described how serial book challengers drain the resources of school districts with frivolous or pointless complaints:
Since [an appearance on Fox News], Friedman said he has spent hundreds of hours combing through a database of more than 5,000 titles scoured from the internet and filing complaints for those he finds objectionable. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Many of Friedman’s written complaints provide little more explanation than “Protect Children!” and “Damaged Souls!” Some of his filed complaints appear to be direct photocopies with only the title and authors changed, the Times found.
“We have probably spent more resources on Bruce than anyone else in the history of the school district,” said Roger Dailey, Clay County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. He said Friedman contacts the district nearly every day. Dailey received two messages from Friedman while on a phone call with the Times.
Dailey was responsible for reviewing each complaint, and said he experienced “weeks totally hijacked by this book thing.” He added:
“The circulation of these books for high school kids is essentially zero … I wish we had a problem of kids reading so many books that they’re coming across problematic subjects. And it breaks my heart to say that.”
The story’s other serial complaint filer was identified as high school teacher Vicki Baggett. Baggett filed no fewer than 178 book challenges, with “language in many of the complaints [apparently] pulled from reviews” on a website affiliated with right-wing group Moms For Liberty.