Two incidents hit The Miami Herald in recent days that underscore new tactics by those seeking to discredit mainstream media, and they augur what experts said are dark days in the battle between credible news and misinformation.
Both incidents came in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 when a teenage gunman killed 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In the first incident, a perpetrator used a software tool to create two fake tweets that looked like they came from the account of Alex Harris, a Herald reporter preparing tributes to the slain students. One fake tweet asked for photos of dead bodies at the school and another asked if the shooter was white.
The reporter almost immediately began getting angry messages.
“It was hampering our ability to cover this terrible tragedy in our own backyard because we’re having to deal with the backlash,” said Aminda Marques, executive editor of The Herald.
In a second incident, someone again used a software tool to create a phony Miami Herald story — in the high tension following the Parkland shooting — saying that a Miami-Dade middle school faced threats of “potentially catastrophic events” on upcoming dates, indicating that a new mass shooting was in the offing.
Screenshots of that fake story were passed along on Twitter and Snapchat, two social media platforms, said Monique O. Madan, a Herald reporter whose byline appeared on the fake story.
It looks super real. They use the same font that we use. It has our masthead.
Monique O. Madan, Miami Herald reporter
“It looks super real. They use the same font that we use. It has our masthead. It has my byline. If I weren’t a journalist, I wouldn’t think twice about it,” Madan said.
Worried parents and teachers grew alarmed, thinking it was a real Herald story. Dozens called or messaged Madan. “My phone just would not stop ringing,” she said.
The motive behind the hoaxes was not clear, but someone sought to create alarm.
“It seems to be consistent with a pattern of people trying to disparage or discredit the news media,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Wasserman is a former executive business editor at The Herald and columnist on the media for McClatchy.
Your information flows are being contaminated in ways that are very difficult to discern.
Edward Wasserman, dean of UC Berkeley Graduate Journalism School
“Obviously this has broad civic consequence if you have a citizenry that doesn’t know where to turn to get truthful information,” Wasserman said. “Your information flows are being contaminated in ways that are very difficult to discern and very difficult to disentangle.”
In the case of the Herald, the incidents came at a time of widespread anxiety.
“The primary thing that it did was create fear among a population that was already terrified. It was just on the heels of this mass shooting,” Marques said.
“I think it’s part of this larger evolving system of misinformation,” said Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. “This is sort of the very, very beginning of something that could be much darker.”
The future will bring hoaxes that far surpass fake tweets and screenshots of fake stories, Ovadya said, noting that “fake video is just about here,” with tools that will make it easy even for amateurs to create images that are totally false but look real.
“There’s less of even an opportunity to think about, ‘Is this real or not?’ when something looks real,” he said.
Key to the hoax perpetrated on The Herald, owned by McClatchy, was that the instigators hijacked the brand of the news organization and the name of respected reporters.
“What they are doing is trafficking in the brand’s integrity to lend credence to a false claim,” said Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
We live in a world of dense information pollution.
Nicco Mele, Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School
“We live in a world of dense information pollution,” he added. “The long-term fallout is really dramatic corruption of our democratic sphere.”
Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and other social media platforms have all said they are struggling to police their sites against fake news. A Snap Inc. spokesperson, declining to speak for attribution, said the Bay Area company believes in content that is credible and authoritative.
Twitter was criticized last week over a torrent of tweets suggesting that two of the student survivors of the shooting were paid actors, and it responded with a tweet.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted, in response to the Herald hoax and other challenges related to falsehoods being spread on its platform, the company is looking for a “scalable and objective” solution to prevent this type of abuse.
“We are actively working on reports of targeted abuse and harassment of a number of survivors of the tragic mass shooting in #Parkland. Such behavior goes against everything we stand for at Twitter,” a tweet from the company added.
Both Mele and Wasserman said social media companies could do more to battle the use of their platforms for the propagation of misinformation.
“Algorithms should be able to find an order of magnitude more than they do now,” Mele said, adding that more employees would also be needed at the social media giants.