Joshua Williams’ campaign team obtained access to Imani Harris’ Facebook campaign page for Miss Southern Miss and changed the name, description and cover photo so that it became the Joshua Williams for SGA Vice President 2019 page at 1:37 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, causing some concerns to arise surrounding the ethics of his campaign tactics.
Harris, a senior public relations major and the current Miss Southern Miss, said that she was approached by Williams’ campaign manager Chael Williams, a senior public relations major, who asked her for access to her old campaign page from when she was still running for Miss Southern Miss.
Harris said the interactions regarding the Facebook page were brief and that afterward, she had no further involvement with the page. She said she found this campaign tactic to be ethical, but that she can understand why some people might take issue with it.
“In my mind, it was just a resource that I was about to delete, and I just said that he could have it,” Harris said. “In my human brain I could see why people would be apprehensive about it, but in my PR brain, it was just a campaign tactic, a transfer of resources really. I didn’t really think much about it because me, Josh and Chael all know pretty much the same people, so if they were going to add anybody, there wouldn’t be that many differences.”
Williams himself said he shares this perspective, saying that this was simply a collaboration between two students.
“[Imani] lent a helping hand. She recognized that I might have needed a little bit of help getting my platform off the ground. Really all she did was hand over her Facebook page that had a couple hundred people on it, and I also have an Instagram that I grew from 0 to 300 followers myself,” Williams said. “Imani Harris is not in an executive position within the SGA, so she doesn’t have any pull with the powers that be so it was just a student helping out another student.”
Harris said when she was actively using the page, there were close to 600 people that were members. By the time Williams’ campaign team got access, it had decreased in numbers by almost half. The page currently has 297 members.
Some people have voiced the concern that this campaign tactic provided Williams with an unfair advantage.
Senator Dakota Wild, a junior sports coaching and sports management major, and former SGA vice presidential candidate, said it was “inappropriate.”
“Personally, I believe that it’s inappropriate because me and the other candidate, Olivia LeBlanc, have built our campaign from the ground up, whereas this candidate [Joshua Williams] has had things given to him, and he hasn’t had to put in as much effort. It stings, and it is very unprofessional in my opinion,” Wild said.
He also made a point to say that he felt that by using this tactic, Williams betrayed the image of himself that he was presenting during his campaign.
“As a candidate, you have a responsibility to be truthful while you’re campaigning because you are campaigning to be a leader on campus. Personally, I don’t feel like he’s been really true throughout this entire time. Between his platform and his getting someone else’s Facebook page to use as an edge in his campaign, it all boils down to him being unprofessional and not being upfront,” Wild said.
Other senators, such as Anna-Meadows Cress, a sophomore marine biology major, agree with Senator Wild that this campaign tactic provided a misleading representation of the support that Williams’ campaign was receiving. Joshua Williams was contacted to further address this specific concern, but he did not give a response.
SGA election commissioner Katie Rogers said that she cannot comment on individual campaigning styles, but all three vice presidential campaigns were in line with the SGA election code.
SGA president McKenna Stone corroborated this, saying that each candidate is free to campaign as they choose as long as it aligns with the election code.
“There is nothing in our election code or constitution or any of our governing documents that would prevent him from using this campaign strategy, so he’s not in violation of our governing documents by doing so. It’s in his prerogative as a candidate,” Stone said.
One of the pieces of the election code that addresses this situation is Article IV, Section III, which deals with campaign fraud, saying that fraudulent campaigning practices are not permitted during any SGA election.
At this point, neither the attorney general nor the election commissioner has evaluated Williams’ use of Imani Harris’ campaign page as a fraudulent campaign practice.