Redding Woman Tackles Cyber Giant
Update: I'm removing names of businesses that were in the testimonials for Ruben because one of the businesses said they never wrote that testimonial - that Ruben created it. My apology for the error, and for any confusion.
Note: This is the first in a series of stories about North State citizens' dealings with Ruben James-Porras, a local Facebook administrator who's elevated himself to public-figure status by controlling scores of social media accounts that reach more than 30,000 people on his various websites and pages. Stay tuned for other related stories.
Also, to protect the identity of the woman who filed a restraining order against James-Porras, she's identified in this story as Erika Wright.
Erika Wright, a 32-year-old Redding business owner, now rues the day she invited Ruben James-Porras into her store. But in retrospect, the blond, blue-eyed woman with the wide smile remembers exactly what it was that enticed her to contact James-Porras - a prolific social media personality - in the spring of 2010. She liked his witty writing style, and the fact that his posts were everywhere.
“I first learned of Ruben by following his Yelp reviews,” Wright said. “He was funny and entertaining. It became evident to me that if I received a positive review from him for my original business, that it would be read by many people due to his large fan base.”
As someone struggling to hoist her sagging retail business off the ground in a ruthless economy, Wright hoped that the ebony-haired, tech-savvy James-Porras - aka Modesto Famous - could peruse her shop, write an online shout-out and maybe catapult her Redding business onto shoppers' cybermaps. Perhaps, she thought, Modesto Famous could even help make her business - well - famous.
With that in mind, Wright contacted James-Porras and asked if he could swing by her place the next time he was in Redding (unaware he actually lived in Redding). She was delighted when he soon replied that yes, he would come by.
Her encounter with James-Porras was the beginning of the end of Wright's peaceful life as she'd known it. Little could she know that by the next year, she'd have endured a living cyberhell that would eventually lead her to file a restraining order against Ruben James-Porras - the man she once so admired.
Wrights' initial excitement about meeting James-Porras waned almost from the moment he strode into her shop. He brought with him a laptop, paperwork and an aggressive sales pitch that outlined precisely how she'd pay him for reviews and posts about her business.
Pay? For reviews? That caught her by surprise.
"I had no idea this was what he thought the meeting was about," she said.
Even so, she listened as James-Porras explained the incredible benefits from using social media to promote one's business. As a demonstration, in just a few seconds the 37-year-old James-Porras typed out and posted a Yelp review about her business. Presto. Just like that. Then he explained that because of what he'd just posted, thousands of people who didn't know her even business existed would now know all about her.
As pleased as she was by that thought, she felt some lingering reservations.
"I told him I'd like to think about it and I'd get back to him."
A few days later James-Porras called Wright to see if she'd made a decision, but she told him she was still unsure. As weeks turned into months, James-Porras continued to email Wright about whether she'd decided to hire him or not. One day, after she logged onto Yelp, she noticed that James-Porras' review of her business was gone. When she emailed James-Porras and asked about the missing post, he said she was aware of the price of a Yelp review, because he'd left that information with her that day.
His reply rubbed her the wrong way.
"I was annoyed by the unprofessionalism and didn't contact him again," she said. "End of story. I thought."
Soon after that email exchange she discovered that James-Porras had written a Facebook message that described Wright and her husband as "scam artists."
"I was outraged," she said. "That post was seen by thousands of people before he took our name out of it, at my husband's demand."
For Wright, that message from James-Porras began an 18-month-long conflict between James-Porras and Wright, primarily via Facebook posts.
However, it didn't take long for Wright and her husband to realize that they were engaged in a losing, imbalanced battle of cyber words with James-Porras and his mammoth online presence, the biggest chunk of which came from his administration of the Redding, California (public places) Facebook page. By sheer volume James-Porras seemingly "won" every time because his Redding, California Facebook page positioned him as the master of a massive social media audience.
To compound matters, James-Porras was able to censor Wright, her husband, family and friends on the very site upon which he sometimes published damning posts about them.
Wright found herself seriously out of her league on a madly uneven playing field where James-Porras' page contained then-9,000 fans, while hers had just a few hundred. (As of this publication, the Redding, California Facebook page is 11,832 strong. Hers is in the 300-range.)
She asked James-Porras to leave her alone. But he continued sending emails that rattled her.
Finally, after messages to Wright in which James-Porras "mentioned" such things as skeletons in closets, personal money issues, and her husband and children, Wright sought help from the Redding Police Department. She said they were sympathetic, but she learned that the police had no jurisdiction over online disputes. Besides, no formal complaint had been filed against James-Porras, something that surprised her, because by then she'd met other women who'd disclosed similar problems with James-Porras, and who'd also gone to the police.
When James-Porras' unwanted emails continued, Wright took her first steps to file a restraining order against James-Porras. She wanted him banned from contacting her in any way, or writing about her, her husband, children or family on any social media sites.
On Sept. 14, she was granted the restraining order from Shasta County Superior Court. Her emotionally charged ordeal with James-Porras had included seeking legal counsel, and attending two court hearings and one non-jury trial.
However, Wright's victory that day was sweet and fleeting, because within minutes of when Wright was granted the restraining order, James-Porras was out of the courtroom and back to writing comments about the court case on his Facebook posts. There, he characterized the hearings as his fight for free speech.
By then he was routinely blasting anyone he anticipated as a potential threat.
Case in point was his Sept. 14 Facebook post: "Before you hear it from local gossip reporter, Doni Greenburg (sic), a restraining order was granted against me today based on peaceful emails that I sent to protect myself and this page. I apparently violated a law by speaking up for myself. That is fine. I have not seen the person that filed this in over 18 months and I don't intend to. This page will always be here for you and will remain positive. Let's fight for Redding!"
That particular post was "liked" by 58 people, and commented on by another 48, who said things like Art C., who wrote, "Keep up the excellent work. I look forward to reading your articles every day. Thanks!!" to which James-Porras replied, "I took a hit for you folks. I feel great about standing up for our community. Thanks for the support."
James-Porras' Facebook posts failed to mention crucial elements about the court hearings, such as how Shasta County Superior Court Commissioner Gary Gibson granted Wright the restraining order she'd requested to keep James-Porras away from her, because Wright had met the legal burden of proof to convince the court that James-Porras had, in fact, harassed Wright.
Likewise, James-Porras failed to mention in his Facebook posts that the woman who was granted the restraining order against him won that legal battle despite the fact that she was not allowed to ask her witnesses - all Redding businesswomen - about their first-hand stories of alleged harassment, intimidation and cyber-bullying.
Commissioner Gibson told Wright that the women's testimonies needed to stick with information about Wright and James-Porras. Gibson said that the Sept. 14 trial was to determine if James-Porras had harassed just her, not to demonstrate a pattern that showed James-Porras harassed others.
Gibson was right, of course.
However, many of the people interviewed for this story reported seeing or experiencing patterns of harassment, intimidation and cyber bullying by James-Porras. Excerpts from some of the supporting statements submitted with Wright’s restraining order by several business women offer a sample of complaints against James-Porras that contain a common thread.
• "I have been selected, targeted and repeatedly harassed by Ruben (James) Porras ... I have never met Mr. (James) Porras; I have never had business dealings with him; I have no idea how he chose me to publicly make disparaging remarks ... Mr. (James) Porras emailed me and taunted me for calling the police and reporting him. He ended his email with, ‘see you soon’ words which I felt he intended to threaten and intimidate me.”
• “Ruben (James) Porras has not only threatened my business, but also left threatening messages on my voicemail. He has screamed at me on the phone with my children in ears (sic) distance because I decided to go through another person for advertising.”
• “... He has posted my actual name on the Internet using slanderous words and trying to incite his fan base of over (at that time 9,000 people), stating, ‘My health is beginning to fail and I need all of you to stand up for me.’ ”
• “As a woman in business in Redding, California, for nearly 10 years, I have personally witnessed both verbal and written attacks by Ruben James Porras ... I personally have received numerous private emails from other women in business too terrified to speak out based on his threats to their businesses in front of an audience he boasts to be 1½ million views per month on Facebook alone!”
Fawning Fan Base
By then, Wright was far from alone in her mistrust of James-Porras. Dozens of citizens - primarily business owners - complained about James-Porras to anyone who'd listen: law enforcement, media and even friends and families' less-populated social media sites.
Meanwhile, scores of others joined thousands who "liked" James-Porras' Redding, California Facebook page, seemingly oblivious to the mounting undercurrent of frustration and dissatisfaction that centered around the behavior of Ruben James Porras.
All the while, James-Porras' online fan base grew along with testimonials from satisfied customers that he showed to prospective advertisers.
[Note: I've removed the names of the businesses in the "testimonials" I quoted from Ruben James Porras' marketing materials. I'd included them to give some balance to this story - getting more and more difficult - and to show that many businesses are happy with him. That was before I received an email from one of the business owners today who said he had NOT written that testimonial, and had NOT endorsed Ruben's services. My apology for not fact- checking on the list of Ruben's testimonials.]
• “Awesome! We can’t thank you enough! Sir, you are a genius with a great eye and amazing words. If anyone is looking for a cost-effective and creative way to advertise their business, they would be crazy not to work for you!” • “Keep posting kind words on behalf of the businesses that you love. Every bit helps and you would be amazed at the power you have!” -
And when this reporter sent out a Facebook message a few months ago asking for responses from people who’d paid for social media reviews and posts, a few people replied with positive comments, specifically about James-Porras.
“Just wanted to respond to your query about paying for exposure on this FB page and Twitter stuff,” wrote Redding businesswoman Ann Webber in this excerpted message: “A while back when Jeanette and I had Infinite Designs and she was too busy to tend to all the online stuff, we did use Ruben’s services. It was a load off of her day and he did a great job promoting us ...”
The fact is, as much as a business might appreciate increased exposure and revenue following an online review, it's against many social media sites' user agreements for someone to accept compensation in exchange for posts and/or reviews. That's true for Facebook and Yelp, both of which James-Porras has posted reviews for which he was paid with either money or food or services.
Consequently, although Yelp disabled James-Porras' account for violating its rules, Facebook has pretty much left James-Porras alone, something that continues to confound many of James-Porras' most strident accusers.
"We joke that there must be a big shredder at Facebook headquarters where all incoming emailed complaints go," said one Shasta County resident who's reported James-Porras to Facebook for what he described as user violations.
Soon, some social media professionals joined the James-Porras debate, saying they've been targeted by him because he felt threatened by them as possible competition.
Exasperation became a nearly daily state of mind for not just Wright and her husband, but many individuals who'd grown weary of what appeared a losing virtual battle with James-Porras' "anti-social" social media tactics. That led some business people to employ a fight-fire-with-fire strategy. They created a blitz of Redding-California-related Facebook fan pages in an attempt to simultaneously neutralize and perhaps dilute the power of James Porras' Redding, California Facebook page.
The result is a rather impressive collection of Redding-themed pages.
Yet another group started gathering and sharing every bit of unflattering information they could find about James-Porras, which even included such unexpected second- and third-hand sources as James-Porras' own parents, sister, former friends, classmates and acquaintances.
But perhaps the most elaborate defensive move of all against James-Porras was lobbed by another tech-savvy man, someone so angered by what he described as a completely unwarranted attack by James-Porras on the man's colleagues, that the man created a webpage that chronicled some of the most unsavory details about James-Porras. Basically, the site was all bad about Ruben James-Porras, all the time.
Although that site has since been closed down after being reported for being abusive, the man explained his rationale for creating the page in the first place.
"I started to see a pattern of people being hurt by him, and of him deleting any sign of his damage," he said of James-Porras. "He would then blame others for 'attacking' him. I started seeing more and more people that were pushed around by his network. He has a large network of people that have not even seen the other side to what he is doing because he deletes and hides. People are willing to believe what he says without a doubt."
He said he created the page about James-Porras for two reasons: to expose what James-Porras had been doing, and to give a voice to those he'd hurt, without being silenced.
"I could understand it if this (Redding, California Facebook page) was Ruben's personal network, but since what he does affects so many people and carries the name of Redding, then he needs to be honest and open about what he does."
The irony of that statement was not lost on the man, who'd agreed to share information, but requested he not be named in the story.
"I can understand the absurdity of remaining anonymous, but I care about the company I work for and do not want them involved in any drama," he said. "Nobody has wanted to stand up against him (James-Porras) because of the network he holds."
Actually, a few people did try to stand up to James-Porras by contacting local media - including this reporter, as far back as February. They asked for someone to investigate the "self-dubbed marketing guru" and administrator of the Redding, California Facebook page.
"The businesses I know of that have been dealt a blow by him are scared and nervous to say anything publicly (though some have on Facebook), due to his likelihood of retaliation," wrote a Redding business owner. She added that although she could admit that James-Porras was doing some good by promoting some local businesses and charities, she also expressed her belief that he was intimidating some local businesses, too.
As one business owner put it, “The economy is so bad I cannot afford to lose one customer. Ruben has power in the numbers of people on his pages, and he controls what they say. I can‘t afford to go up against someone like that.“
In addition to contacting the media and law enforcement, some business people complained to Redding City Manager Kurt Starman that James-Porras was representing himself as the face of the city’s “official” Facebook page. They accused James-Porras as sometimes making false, potentially damaging statements about citizens on a page that was viewed by many as the city of Redding's Facebook page.
In May, Starman addressed the topic in an email to this reporter.
Starman said that James-Porras had every right to create and maintain a Facebook page, just like anyone else. However, Starman added that the city had made it clear to James-Porras that his Redding, California Facebook page was not the city's official Facebook page, and that James-Porras was not affiliated with the city.
Fearless and Unflappable
In May, when a KRCR reporter followed up on some of the complaints about James-Porras for a story, she interviewed and quoted James-Porras, as well as some of his accusers, in her broadcast. And although the story ended up being more about social media in general and less about James-Porras, from then on James-Porras has routinely blasted KRCR in his posts.
Furthermore, following complaints by some businesswomen to the Redding Police Department that they felt threatened and bullied by James-Porras, RPD officers arrested him on old DUI charges, but later released him. Since then, James-Porras openly ridicules RPD on his social media sites.
Finally, last month, after Wright filed paperwork for a temporary restraining order, James-Porras taunted the woman in an email that said, “Print this email. Show the cops. Show whoever you think will read it and pat yourself on the back for being a master sleuth ...”
This communication stunned the woman, as well as those in whom she'd confided.
"Here’s a guy who repeatedly makes fun of a local TV station after they do a story that barely mentions him, and then he mocks the police with impunity after they arrested him and for talking to him," said one business person.
“It’s as if Ruben thinks he’s above the law. And if it's true - that he is above the law, and he can do and say anything he wants, then who can stop him? Who can compete against a guy who has thousands of people who believe him, only because he doesn't allow the truth on his pages? I sure can't.”
Who's the victim?
When asked in May for an explanation of why so many people were unhappy with him, James-Porras remained steadfast in his assertion that not only is he innocent, but he's the true victim of undeserved persecution.
"You would not believe the stuff I've put up with from these people," James-Porras said. "They're trying to destroy me. My page got big and they got jealous ... these people are diabolical, they're crazy, they've ruined my life and want me to move out of the city."
During James-Porras’ testimony in September, he told the judge that with one keyboard stroke, he could reach more than 30,000 people. When he mentioned the Redding, California Facebook page, he said he created it.
In fact, the truth is that the most-liked Redding CA Facebook page was created by Shawn Thompson in July of 2009, someone who'd allowed James-Porras to join Thompson as co-administrator. By February 2010, James-Porras had stripped Thompson’s administration rights and assumed the page for himself.
Also during his court testimony, James-Porras blamed Wright and her husband for getting him “fired” from his jobs at the Redding Record Searchlight and Enjoy magazine.
In fact, Silas Lyons, editor of the Record Searchlight, later set the record straight when asked by this reporter for a clarification about James-Porras' employment status.
“If Ruben Porras claimed to have been 'fired' from the RS, that would be impossible," wrote Lyons in his emailed reply. "We bought some of his freelance work on a piece-by-piece basis, but he’s never held a position here that he could be fired from. We did stop using his work some months ago, but it wasn’t because of any particular person’s complaints. I explained to him at the time that we were primarily concerned that his marketing enterprise, connected to his Facebook page, created the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Likewise, Ronda Ball, managing editor of Enjoy magazine, provided a similar response to my request for clarification.
"All our writers are freelance, none are hired employees," Ball wrote. "Ruben was never hired. Ruben wrote one story but when we received it, it wasn't a good fit for the magazine so we didn't run it. We paid him a kill fee for the story, which we do when we ask a writer for a story that doesn't run. That has been the extent of our relationship.”
His mischaracterizations continue unchallenged before an equivalent one-third of Redding's population.
Many of his fans/friends and followers believe James-Porras' posts, and offer messages of support. And why not? There's nothing on his pages that allows a different version. Writers who do attempt to share an alternate viewpoint find their comments deleted, and sometimes they're blocked entirely.
However, sometimes James-Porras will allow a question, such as this by commenter Lori C., who asked, "I don't get it ... who is taking you to court, and why?"
And someone named Casey posted his thoughts about James-Porras' description of the court case when he wrote, "I just don't understand what their complaint is. They think you should not have a Redding page because they had a Redding page already? They are arguing about content, about name, about what? It just baffles me that this kind of suit would be allowed to move forward."
Despite questions like those, James-Porras still casts himself as the underdog when discussing the court hearings and trial.
He never shared with his tens of thousands of fans the fact he was wrong when he said the lawsuit was to stop James-Porras from having a Facebook site.
Most of all, James-Porras failed to share with readers the fact that the restraining order had nothing to do at all with "protecting" his website.
He failed to disclosed that the hearings and trial had everything to do with a 32-year-old woman's fear of James-Porras, and her unwillingness to be intimidated by him, even after he continued to contact her five times after she'd told him to leave her alone.
As Commissioner Gibson commented on the afternoon he granted Wright's request for a restraining order, this time, James-Porras may have messed with the wrong person.
Seconds after Gibson's exit from the bench, as Wright celebrated her win by hugging her husband and friends, a grinning James-Porras got the last word as he delivered a light smack against his girlfriend's behind as they left the courtroom.
"It's only the beginning," he said.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.
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