This is a story about how the media got it wrong. I don’t believe that they intentionally got it wrong, I think they were just in a hurry to be first with a story. That can be risky.
On February 16th, Politico posted an article about the history of the claim that Nikolas Cruz was associated with white supremacist groups. Since the charge of racism or white supremacy is very popular now, I suppose it’s not a surprise that this charge was levied against this deeply troubled young man. It’s easier to blame racism than it is to blame the Promise Program (article here) which prevented the gun shop owner from knowing Nikolas Cruz should never have been allowed to buy a gun. I don’t know if Nikolas Cruz would have been able to get a gun illegally or not, but at least if his information had been included in a background check, it would have slowed him down a little. At any rate, the media decided he was a white supremacist.
The article explains how that happened:
On Thursday afternoon, the Anti-Defamation League reported that a white supremacist group claimed ties with Nikolas Cruz, who confessed to the shooting spree that killed at least 17 people, including many high-school students, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“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 a few hours later, after law enforcement agencies said they had no evidence linking Cruz to ROF, Jereb said his identification of Cruz was a “misunderstanding” and that he, too, had been the subject of a “prank.” On online forums and Twitter, trolls and white nationalists gloated at the disinformation they had sowed.
“All of our evidence seems to point to the ADL getting this wrong,” said Joan Donovan, a researcher who tracks online misinformation campaigns for Data & Society, a think tank in New York City.
The ADL subsequently revised its report, as did many news outlets.
The saga continues:
In posts to Gab, a social-networking site used by many in the alt-right, early Friday morning, one user said the Discord group “spent around 18 hours orchestrating, contacting ABC, being interviewed by reporters, etc.”
Members swapped links to articles that identified Cruz as a member of ROF, celebrating each story and keeping a tally of media interview attempts.
“ABC messaged me. Asked to use my name in this article,” wrote one user.
“This is spreading like wildfire,” wrote another user, “Renegade,” after someone in the chat shared a link to the ADL blog post.
“All it takes is a single article,” the first user wrote back. “And everyone else picks up the story.”
ABC News reported that its reporters spoke with three “former schoolmates” of Cruz, but did not indicate whether these communications were over social media. A spokesperson for ABC News declined to comment on how its reporters vetted the identities of these purported acquaintances.
For its part, an AP spokesperson said, “AP spoke with the leader of Republic of Florida, who said Cruz was a member of his group and had participated in exercises in Tallahassee. In the course of continued reporting, police and other groups were not able to confirm Cruz’s association with the white nationalist militia, and that is what is reflected on the wire.”
Others in the Discord chat said they were contacted by a reporter from The New York Times.
At some point, the trolls started a “confessional” 4chan thread dedicated to convincing readers that Cruz had been a member of ROF. The ADL confirmed this 4chan post was the one that led to their blog post.
The people behind the disinformation campaign were very proud of themselves. The article reports:
By Thursday evening, 4chan users were celebrating their efforts, posting screenshots of their communications with reporters and faux posts pretending to be ROF members.
“[T]hey are so hungry for a story that they’ll just believe anything as long as its corroborated by a few people and seems legit,” wrote the creator of one 4chan thread.
Donovan, the disinformation researcher, said reporters need to be more vigilant against these kinds of campaigns, which are going to get only more common and more sophisticated.
“We have to start thinking of these white nationalist groups as what some of them describe themselves — ‘media militias,’” said Donovan. “They think of media as adversarial territory.”
The internet can be a dangerous place for truth.