It wasn’t long after news broke of a mass shooting at a South Florida high school when the hoaxes started.
At BuzzFeed News, Jane Lytvynenko started logging them — both on Twitter and in a running story. Many of the conspiracies focused on the shooter’s identity, claiming he was everyone from a German YouTuber to a member of Antifa.
For another mass shooting in America, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, it seemed like business as usual for debunkers. Photos claiming to depict shooting suspects regularly make the rounds on social media after tragedies.
“They started spreading almost immediately,” said Lytvynenko, who covers online misinformation. “We did see some people trying to claim the shooter was a member of Antifa, which has been happening a lot lately — after almost every disaster in America.”
But then something changed.
On Thursday morning, Lytvynenko and others started noticing doctored tweets targeting the journalists covering the shooting. They assumed reporters’ identities, substituting fake text for the original tweets — many of which were aimed at getting more information about the shooting and its victims. Seventeen were dead as of publication.
“For me personally, I think that’s the first time I’ve seen something like that,” Lytvynenko said. “It’s a little bit stark because it definitely gets in the way of a reporter’s job if the people they’re trying to contact don’t know whether the other tweets that are being sent are legitimate or not.”
Alex Harris was one of the first journalists to reach out to victims at the scene on Twitter. It’s a practice she’d gotten used to as a breaking news reporter at the Miami Herald, where she covered the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando during her second week on the job.
“I know the drill — it’s reach out to as many people on Twitter as you can,” she said. “It’s a numbers game. You reach out to 30 and maybe six get back.”
This time was different.
One of Harris’ early replies quickly went viral. Within 45 minutes, she was getting a barrage of harassment from random Twitter users. Someone made a screenshot of a fake tweet alleging that she had asked someone for photos or videos of dead bodies. She decided to ignore the hoax and report it to Twitter instead.
Twitter didn’t take it down. The harassment kept flooding in.
So she decided to tweet about the fake posts impersonating her, hoping it would help stop the flood of abuse. It didn’t — people thought she had deleted the fake tweet instead.
“I told someone that wasn’t a real tweet and they said that, ‘Basically, with what you’re asking children, it might as well be,’” she said. “It just started getting bigger, bigger, bigger.”
There are 2 fake tweets circulating today attributed to me. They are doctored versions of tweets I sent while trying to tell the stories of victims and survivors — important stories that need to be heard. I did not ask if the shooter was white nor ask for photos of dead bodies.
— Alex Harris (@harrisalexc) February 15, 2018
She saw someone had posted the fake tweet on Reddit and a white nationalist message board. Then people started accusing her of being a racist, Jewish and questioning her gender. She has since moved on to cover the victims of the shooting, not the survivors.
“I know a lot of female journalists get harassed on Twitter regularly, so I’ve seen some of it. I knew it was bad,” she said. “But this was pretty bad for me.”
“This is just more than I’ve ever experienced and it was overwhelming — I felt very trapped on Twitter.”
Harris wasn’t the only journalist to be targeted by doctored reporting. Another hoax that made the rounds on Twitter — and was circulated by right-wing website The Gateway Pundit — was a screenshot of a fake BuzzFeed News about taking away white people’s guns. That claim was also posted on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board.
Gateway Pundit circulating a hoax screenshot of BuzzFeed News reporting in aftermath of FL school shooting. Let me be clear, this is fake. pic.twitter.com/VNJuYPec0a
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) February 15, 2018
Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, which is hosted in Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said in an email that this was the first time she’s seen fake tweets posing as journalists’ work. However, over the past couple of years, she’s seen tweets chastising journalists who reach out to people affected by breaking news events.
That nugget of reality is what makes these fake tweets effective, she said.
“The reason it's so damaging is that it builds on the resentment that has been growing about the ways journalists operate on stories like this,” she said. “The most successful manipulation takes advantage of views that already exist. It makes things more believable.”
It takes virtually no effort to create a fake tweet pretending to be someone else. Wardle pointed to tools like TweetFake.com, which lets users search for a specific handle and write their own tweet — complete with built-in likes and retweets — which can then be shared as an image on social media. It took us less than a minute to make and share one.
While traditional fake news stories have a financial incentive, amassing advertising revenue by monetizing page views, Lytvynenko said the motivation for creating fake tweets is less clear. While creating them could be politically motivated, there’s also the possibility that the people behind them are just bent on destruction.
When 4chan users saw that BuzzFeed had debunked a hoax about the shooter being Sam Hyde — whose photo circulates after every shooting — they weren’t disappointed, she said. They celebrated.
“They were happy that this hoax was acknowledged and they tend to see it as a prank. It seemed to be a fairly gleeful response,” she said. “It hints that that might be one of the goals.”
So what should reporters do to avoid being targeted by fake tweets?
“There isn't anything journalists can do other than keep a watchful eye on their mentions column (in this example the journalist was tagged),” Wardle said. “If they hadn't been tagged they probably wouldn't have known it was happening.”
“This is all so depressing.”
Corrections: We misspelled Jane Lytvynenko's name in an earlier version of this story. Also, Alex Harris moved on to a different part of the mass shooting coverage as a natural progression of her duties, not as a result of the fake tweet attacks.