The team behind the FitFam Instagram account speaks about the controversy, the reasons behind keeping their identities anonymous, and the trials and tribulations of citizen journalism.
In between the short videos of Ford Mustangs bent around poles and on top of curbs (a.k.a. Mustang L’s), public service announcements (that are not public service announcements, but more often than naught, pleas for relationships) and actual news reports typically reporting on local shootings or arrests, these are just a few examples of what you can expect from the first glance at @fitfamelpaso, the self-described “top social media site in El Paso” on Instagram with over 174,000 followers.
@fitfamelpaso (a.k.a. Fitfam by local El Pasoans) has been present on the social media site for about six years.
It had initially existed as a fitness account dedicated to workouts, workout-related memes, and occasionally other city-related jokes until the account began to receive many submissions from local El Pasoans. So now, it’s a mix of everything.
These submissions ranged from funny videos, funny pictures, and eventually local news updates, some of which have created contentious comment sections.
A member of the Fitfam team, who was initially contacted directly through the Instagram account’s direct messages and then interviewed over a phone call, asked to remain anonymous and said that the account used to be run by several different people. Still, now it’s only run by two, according to the Fitfam team member.
“To be honest, I would have never expected it to get this big, literally the biggest social media account here, and it’s just something we do for fun on the side,” said the Fitfam team member.
If you scroll far enough, you’ll find that the account’s Instagram feed features images and videos about the El Paso shootings, car accidents, police reports, weather updates, local protests, COVID-19 updates, and memes.
“I will say this: we’re not an official news source. So, whenever we post the news, we basically just repost it. But, just the way that our account is so big and thanks to the algorithm of Instagram, whenever we do post something, it’s usually seen quicker and by more people than actual news sites,” said the Fitfam team member.
Because of this, El Pasoans frequently look to the Fitfam account for the latest updates on breaking news.
The team member admits that because of the reach of their account, they try to keep it as unbiased as possible as their Instagram bio states: “This page is what you want it to be.”
Yet, El Pasoans like Seth Van Matre, a University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) alumnus and former KTEP staff member, stand firmly by the claim that the account remains heavily biased.
“I know the guy says that he’s trying to not be biased,” said Van Matre. “But, of course, every news organization, every journalist has their own inherent bias, and this guy’s not a journalist.”
Except, according to the FitFam team member that was contacted, at least one of them is or at least had studied journalism briefly.
“The journalism world, it’s very bureaucratic,” said the FitFam team member. “So like, I mean, that’s what really frustrated me about both the marketing world and the journalism world. Even though you have an idea, you want to tell the story the way you want to tell it, by the time it gets put out there, it’s so warped, and too many people have had their hands on it, that it doesn’t feel like you own it.”
According to its definition from Britannica, an online encyclopedia, Fitfam fits the description of citizen journalism, “people who are not professional journalists but who disseminate information using web sites, blogs, and social media.”
Citizen journalism has been popularized since the rise of social media and it is often criticized by trained journalists due to concerns over the increasing problem of misinformation.
Americans are concerned as from whom they get their traditional news., After all, 72% of them seemingly saw “a lot/some” made-up news during the 2020 election.
While the public is participating in the democracy of a checks and balance system, criticizing news sources, evaluating their validity, there has also been an increasing black hole of misinformation alongside it and in turn, a growing mistrust of the media.
“They don’t have reporting. They don’t have what we know is traditional reporting, where somebody is actually going out and interviewing, or, you know, looking up documents and backgrounding and verifying information, it’s…sharing. Like, it’s creating memes, you know, just entertaining little pieces or in some cases, pieces that are considered to be informative…,” said Kate Gannon, an associate professor of practice in journalism at UTEP. Gannon has more than 25 years of experience with a focus in digital content.
According to Gannon, what accounts like FitFam might do is enlarge the vacuum of misinformation that already exists on the internet and social media channels.
“If you don’t know who is behind a site you don’t know what their motives are, you don’t know who they are. You can feel like they’re well meaning, but again, if they’re putting up information that can inspire more of a mob marking or vigilantism, then, you know, they should be accountable. They should be if they think that’s important enough to do. They should stand behind it and tell you who they are,” said Gannon.
But, can this title really be applied to Fitfam?
“In trying to assess whether or not something is journalism we’re looking for some key things: is the information verified, you know, is there accountability, is there transparency, are there documents or attribution to, to support that?,” Gannon said. “But, I don’t think some of them would call themselves journalists. Having said that – they have an audience and you know, that doesn’t relieve them of some of the responsibilities.”
The identity behind the people who run the account has been debated since its creation. While a select few may know the identities of the FitFam team, many of the El Paso population doesn’t and it remains speculative.
In November 2020, heated political discussions in the comment section and an image of the El Paso Star being lit blue in honor of law enforcement after the Black Lives Matter protests caused upset online within the El Paso community.
Some community members responded by attempting to expose the identities of the account runners.
“It had nothing to do with me. But, people were so- they felt so strongly because a lot of people were upset at the police. I believe that they decided, ‘oh, since the owner of this account thinks it’s okay to post the blue star, let’s expose this guy’s background,’ so it tends to happen, and it actually happens quite often,” said the Fitfam team member.
More recently, in March 2021, a story about a woman named America Valadez allegedly being followed by a man named Luis Silva after leaving a local gym saw a total of around 24,000 likes over two separate posts on Instagram. This event sparked conversations on Twitter which speculated the identity of the owners of FitFam.
El Pasoans like Jessica Ceniceros-Acosta, a UTEP multimedia journalism student, took part in this conversation but was not one of the post-ers who allegedly shared photos of the FitFam team members. She felt that it’s essential to consider the identities behind large accounts like FitFam.
“They can say, ‘we’re not trying to be like the local news,’ but if you’re going to be posting about local news, then you should just flat out say: ‘we’re not local news,’ like, ‘this is just stuff people said to us.’ And yeah, like half of the Instagram feeds are just people sending them stuff, but the way that they caption their stuff makes it seem like they’re trying to give out news to people,” said Ceniceros.
But the Fitfam team member says that revealing their identities would take away from the purpose of the account.
“Our account posts like the good and the bad, and people relate more to making it feel like an actual real depiction of our city. I think a lot of accounts don’t do that,” said the FitFam team member.“No matter how hard we try to stand by or try to be a fact-leading page… its practically almost impossible, so I used to stress about it, but now I don’t.”
People like Van Matre, the former UTEP alum and FitFam follower says even though the account has a large following, a large audience, he feels that it is not FitFam’s responsibility to hold themselves responsible, especially to journalistic standards.
“A lot of it is ‘reporting’ other reports right? So, FitFam, the guy who runs it used to have a really good relationship with Keenan Willard (formerly) from KFOX, and that kind of works symbiotically. But, also, you got to ask yourself: How reliable is KFOX, right? How reliable is this news site, and that’s only being funneled down through FitFam,” said Van Matre.
According to the large following the account has, it seems that there is some sort of appeal in the idea of an account, run by anonymous owners being allegedly directed by crowd-sourcing.
After all, Gannon said, a person looking to FitFam for local news might have something to do with accessibility and feeling like “they are more likely to run into them in the community, they may know them more and feel like, you know, that they might be more trustworthy”.
“I mean he’s really just a guy, you know, he’s just a dude, at least from what I understand,” Van Matre said. “I don’t know if there’s anything more to him if he’s, you know, like I said, if there is more egregious offenses against him that I simply don’t know. But, I feel, you know, it’s fine, that we know about his identity.”
Van Matre said it might also be beneficial for the account to reveal the identities of the owners, for accountability reasons and possibly even for the ease of mind on the account runners.
“Especially if you have an audience, you know, a large audience, you’ve built up a following, you know, you have– What is that the Spider-Man thing? ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’” Gannon said.
By Brandy Ruiz
Photography by Jasmine Campoya