White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too

What went wrong, and how it fits into the new age of misinformation.

A few hours after a gunman opened fire on his fellow students in Parkland, Florida, alt-right websites like Infowars were already trying to blame Muslims, Communists, Trump opponents, democrats… anyone and everyone on their enemies list.

The problem isn’t “waiting to politicize” — that ship has long since sailed — it’s creating downright false narratives to affirm one’s own “side.”

One Twitter user who goes by “Respectable Lawyer” had a viral moment debunking the Infowars conspiracy (not even addressing the typical Alex Jones line that the shooting was a “false flag” carried out by actors).

The following afternoon, the Anti-Defamation League reported that it had spoken to the leader of a white nationalist group called Republic of Florida who claimed the shooter was a member. Reporters began trying to confirm. The AP, ABC, and the Daily Beast all spoke to the group leader and found corroborating sources on social media.

They ran the story. Others picked up on it. I, having read versions published by the AP, LA Times, BuzzFeed, and the Daily Beast, shared the latter to my Twitter followers.

It was all an orchestrated hoax.

As soon as I learned of it, I took a screenshot of my original tweet and posted it along with a correction:

The next morning, I got to work looking at how the hoax came together, and how we fell for it.

Perhaps the best thing going for the trolls was that it’s not entirely clear the person they led reporters to was in on the prank to trick media, or if he thought affiliating themselves with a school shooter was actually a good move. (Warning: strong language in the screenshot below.)

However, as Politico reported, most of the media contact with misleading sources happened through traditional social media, like Instagram. Meanwhile, in the places the alt-right congregate, like 4Chan and Gab, there was public evidence of their planning and celebration of their success.

I have peeked into r/The_Donald on Reddit once or twice, and that was enough for me (here’s a look from FiveThirtyEight, if you really want to know). But diving into these cesspools of hate has become part of the beat for reporters, and perhaps I need to do the same when I see news relating to them making the rounds.

Whether it was entirely or mostly orchestrated, numerous newsrooms fell for it, and so did I. It’s an important reminder of the ongoing offensive against the media by the alt-right.

In fact, appearing to discredit themselves is a prime tactic. During the Alabama Senate election late last year, a woman approached the Washington Post claiming that Roy Moore impregnated her as a teenager. Combined with all of the other allegations of sexual impropriety, yet another claim could have sunk Moore, the alt-right’s chosen candidate since the primary.

But the plan was to let the Post report it, then expose it as “fake news,” casting doubt upon every other claim made against Moore. It was a setup, pure and simple.

Instead, the Post caught on, through some fascinating digging into the background of the source. And the story became the attempted deception.

The same motive could be at work here. In addition to sowing general distrust in media, mislabeling the shooter as a member of a radical white nationalist group could cast doubt on the other evidence of his adherence to that philosophy.

These attempts to discredit media by feeding them purposely false information are an additional obstacle in journalists’ efforts to get to the bottom of important stories. Even the governor of Maine said he intentionally misleads reporters with the express purpose of undermining their credibility.

2018-02-17 15.20.18
The Hill

At the same time, tech and the algorithms that feed our confirmation biases churn forward toward what social media and digital journalism researcher Aviv Ovadya called an “infocalypse” of reality distorting misinformation.

In a sea of politically, socially, and economically driven misinformation created by humans and machines alike, the work of truth-telling communicators is harder than ever… and undeniably more important.

But every time we fall for the fakes, it chips away at our credibility.

Once misinformation seeps into our social networks, it’s almost impossible to extinguish. Sensational falsehoods generate exponentially more likes and shares than the correction. Corrections about this particular story aren’t spreading at all. Worse, some haven’t corrected/removed the original misinformation, which continues to spread.

(FWIW, I am not a fan of completely erasing mistakes, but I also believe stopping their spread is most important. That’s why I prefer editing the original article/post to make the correction as prominent as possible, and when editing is not available (like on Twitter), deleting the misinformation and posting a correction with a screenshot of the mistake for posterity.)

Finally, I’d be foolish to ignore personal biases. It’s why this story began with the bit about Infowars. As is clear from my contextualizing comment, I shared the article because I am angered by the **still fake** attempts by fringe media to associate the shooter with their various enemies, using a school shooting to stoke division & xenophobia.

I teach First Amendment law, which is pretty much example after example of protecting horrible people saying horrible things. I research partisan perceptual biases. I’d like to think that background helps me apply consistent standards to what I curate and disseminate.

Would I have caught the deception in this story if I hadn’t been predisposed to believe it? I don’t know. So many reputable outlets citing direct conversations and corroborating evidence? I might’ve still been duped.

But I’ll certainly be more critical the next time. I’m most apologetic because I fear that for the average news consumer, skepticism will translate to “don’t believe anything.” And if it’s all fake, reality is whatever you want it to be.

For some, that’s the goal. For society, that can’t happen.


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