When the Media Wants to Be Fooled
On Thursday, following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a story emerged that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of a white supremacist militia and had trained with them.
This story was shot down almost immediately by local police authorities and the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper. But literally hundreds of media outlets picked up the story, and despite the denials by police, ran with it.
It was a case where the media wanted desperately to be fooled.
Politico has a post-mortem on how the fake news was swallowed whole by the media, and how a patently false story was accepted as true with little effort to verify the facts.
The story began with the left-wing Anti-Defamation League, which had contacted and talked to the leader of the Republic of Florida militia, Jordan Jereb.
“A spokesperson for the white supremacist group Republic of Florida (ROF) told the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday, February 15, that Nikolas Cruz [....] was associated with his group,” the ADL reported. The ADL quoted a man named Jordan Jereb, who runs the small group, which is based in Tallahassee.
“Jereb added that ROF had not ordered or wanted Cruz to do anything like the school shooting,” the ADL wrote in a blog post that was quickly picked up by ABC News and The Associated Press, and later percolated through dozens of other media outlets. Even The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, picked up the claim.
But within a few hours of that report appearing in the AP, the Tallahassee Democrat published a story that immediately called into question Jereb's boastful claims.
Local law enforcement sources have not found a connection between accused Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz and a Tallahassee-based paramilitary group.
Leon County law enforcement sources told the Tallahassee Democrat that they could not find information linking Cruz, 19, to the Republic of Florida Militia, as claimed by the group’s self-proclaimed leader Jordan Jereb.
His comments to the Anti-Defamation League and The Associated Press set off a media firestorm Thursday at about midday that Cruz was connected to the alt-right, white nationalist group.
Hours after news outlets around the nation reported Cruz's alleged ties, Leon County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Grady Jordan told the Tallahassee Democrat investigative work did not yield any connections.
“We are still doing some work but we have no known ties between the ROF, Jordan Jereb or the Broward shooter,” Jordan said.
In another age when the American media was more responsible and circumspect, this would have set off five-alarm bells in newsrooms across the country:
Jereb did not answer repeated phone calls following law enforcement officials saying they found little to lead them to believe Cruz was connected to the organization which has a scant following of around a dozen members.
And yet, the story circulated on hundreds of news sites.
It wasn't until the Tallahassee Democrat story had been out for hours that news organizations revised their stories.
Donovan called this an instance of “source hacking,” a tactic by which fringe groups coordinate to feed false information to authoritative sources such as ADL researchers. These experts, in turn, disseminate the information to reporters, and it reaches thousands of readers before it can be debunked.
“It’s a very effective way of getting duped,” Donovan said.
If there's one takeaway from this media embarrassment it's that the press did not get "duped." The militia story fit so perfectly with their narrative about Trump enabling white supremacist groups that even after a denial by local police, press outlets were running the story as if it were true.
Not duped. It was the deliberate spread of information they knew was unconfirmed. Twenty years ago, a reporter and his editor would have been out on his ass for making such a rookie mistake. (These days, the "journalist" might win a Pulitzer.)
Shockingly, Politico reporter Shawn Musgrave places the blame for spreading the story on right-wing social media trolls.
The ADL traced its original tip to posts on 4chan, where researchers found “self-described ROF members” claiming that Cruz was a brother-in-arms. But many of those posts seem to have been written specifically to deceive reporters and researchers.
On Wednesday, an anonymous 4chan user posted about receiving a message on Instagram from an ABC News reporter after making a joke suggesting he knew Cruz.
“Prime trolling opportunity,” another user replied.
“You have to take advantage of this,” a third chimed in.
He asked for proof of the reporter’s identity, according to posted screenshots from their correspondence. The reporter provided an official email address and sent a photo of an ABC identification badge.
Some on the 4chan thread joked about sending back obscene photos, but others gave concrete tips for tricking the reporter: “Keep talking to her so she gains your trust”; “Keep this going be realistic ... say you have known him for years you met him on a Liberal Facebook page years ago and you have kept in touch”; “Say you are scared to tell her in case you get blamed, it will get her excited you know something big.”
This particular 4chan user seems to have sent the reporter a racist cartoon and was quickly blocked. Many on the forum ripped into him for missing a “a golden opportunity.”
In keeping with the theme that the media was "duped," blame must be passed from where it belongs—news media posting uncorroborated facts—to those simply responding to the false story—social media.
Militia leader Jereb virtually took responsibility for the tragedy, applauding the "efficiency" with which Cruz murdered 17 people while bragging that it was the training he received with ROF that allowed him to do what he did.
Nowhere in evidence was there the least question that this blowhard racist wasn't playing the media.
I posted a story on PJ Media about the fake news soon after the Tallahassee Democrat issued the denial that Cruz was a member of ROF:
Only media hysteria over Trump would explain belief in a lying hater like Jereb. That Daily Beast article contained zero caveats and posted his idiotic ramblings without comment.
As I said, Cruz could be a member of the ROF or not. Local law enforcement, who you would think are keeping pretty close tabs on a bunch of radical righties with guns, never heard of Cruz being connected to the militia.
But that pales in comparison to the "fact" that the leader of a white supremacist militia is virtually claiming responsibility for the school shooting. And despite zero evidence and no confirmation from any independent source -- indeed, a denial from local authorities -- the media runs with it.
Famous media theory philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "The media is the message." These days, the narrative is the message—the only message—and facts, opinions, and reporters themselves must serve it.