News

February 22, 2018

US - Internet users attempt to delegitimize journalists and media outlets by sharing false information in midst of Florida shooting

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned by the recent trend of Internet users spreading false information by impersonating journalists and news outlets on social media. The events occurred after a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people last week.

Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris found herself a target of impersonation while she was covering the shooting as it unfolded on February 14. Two tweets from a copycat Twitter account using her name posted offensive and inaccurate information about the shooting and the nature of her investigation into the facts.



The identity of the user behind the imposter account remains unknown, and the tweets in question have since been deleted.


Harris told BuzzFeed in an interview the next day, "I had literally thousands of messages and they just filled up my mentions and [direct messages] with terrible, racist, sexist, horrific, graphic death threats...I never experienced anything like it before. People kept saying, 'Don't talk to her, she's racist,' and it just kept getting worse."


After the incident, Harris claimed it was difficult to continue reporting on the shooting, as potential sources declined to speak to her after seeing the tweets from the imposter account. "I think it genuinely might have made a difference to some of the people I reached out to," she said.


False information about the shooting was shared by another anonymous Twitter user with the account handle “MAGA PILL.” The account shared a screenshot of an article that appeared to be published by BuzzFeed, titled “Why We Need To Take Away White People’s Guns Now More Than Ever” by an author named Richie Horowitz. The screenshot was later revealed to be false; the real article published by BuzzFeed was titled “At Least 17 People Are Dead In A Florida School Shooting” by reporter Salvador Hernandez.



Trump previously retweeted from the MAGA PILL account in November 2017. Hernandez shared a screenshot of the false BuzzFeed article, which has since been deleted, on his Twitter account that portrayed the inaccurate information.


“When information falsely identifying a journalist or a media outlet as dishonest or biased circulates in the midst of a major news story receiving national attention, journalists’ ability to credibly cover the news is threatened.” said Margaux Ewen, RSF’s North America Director. “This tactic can instill doubt in both readers and potential sources as to the identity of the reporters attempting to cover a story and can even de-legitimize reporting itself. This phenomenon risks jeopardizing the ability of the press to credibly cover major news stories in the future where they play a key role in informing the American public, including the upcoming midterm elections.”


The United States currently ranks 43rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index after falling two places between 2016 and 2017.