Lies, Lies and More Lies in Social Media

@Jewymarie tweets from The Buttry Diary

Screenshots from The Steve Buttry Diary 

As news of the San Bernardino shooting broke last week, a number of reporters were duped by pranksters whose identities remain unknown.

What we do know is that someone using the name, Marie Christmas, and the Twitter handle @JewyMarie, tweeted about being an eyewitness to the shooting rampage:

“I’m not sure if I’m safe or not. I got a glimpse of the shooter. This is scary.”

The media immediately jumped on the story. News reporters tweeted to ask if they could contact her. Some urged her to be safe.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, wrote an in depth blog post on The Buttry Diary about how the hoax played out on Twitter and in media reports. He provides much insight into how he and others, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, were fooled.

What transpired is a lesson for aspiring and seasoned journalists (and bloggers) alike. Some journalists took @JewyMarie’s tweets at face value; others backed away when they couldn’t get a telephone number to speak with her to verify her story.

Anderson Cooper aired a telephone interview with @JewyMarie who CNN identified as “Marie Port, San Bernardino Shooting Witness” on Anderson Cooper 360. Listen for yourself, but to my ear “Marie” sounds like a young man. Could that have been the first clue? You can find the audio link of the interview on Buttry’s blog.

And there were other clues. Interestingly, there were several names that made it into national news reports for the person behind the Marie Christmas @JewyMarie Twitter account. The AP reporter filed a story citing Marie A. Parker, yet another pseudonym. The AP story ended up in The New York Times.

The Associated Press posted a lengthy write up from this so-called witness to the San Bernardino shootings, which we now know to be fabricated. The AP article included quotes from Marie A. Parker linking the shooting to GamerGate, an online gamer movement that first took on the issue of press ethics in the gaming community a year ago. The New York Times ran the AP story, then retracted it.

“This story has been corrected to eliminate the section attributed to Marie A. Parker. A social media account that led AP to a person who used that name and claimed to be a witness later posted that the anecdote was a hoax.”

And it appears there were others involved in the deception.

One is a fake CNN reporter called Paul Town who DM’d Buttry after taking part in earlier tweets to @JewyMarie. He wrote: “Me and JewyMarie are part of a secret cabal of people fighting for ethics in journalism, and this was one of the methods we employ.” Buttry has lots of screen captures of these tweets, including @JewyMarie’s, which “she” took private after her earlier public conversations with journalists.

I have to think there are investigative journalists (and perhaps even The FBI) working to uncover the pranksters’ real identities since they must surely be persons of interest at some level. Even if we never get to the bottom of this, perhaps some good of it will come from the embarrassing lessons learned.

This is once again a cautionary tale about how easily the news media can be fooled by phony social media posts in the rush to break a story.

Additional Reading

Ho, ho, hoax – Marie Christmas. Published in Code Words, The SPJ Ethics Committee Blog. Post by Andrew Seaman (12/4/15)

Associated Press Corrects, Duped by Fake San Bernardino Witness who linked Shootings to GamerGate Published in iMediaEthics, Media Ethics News & Investigative Reports. Post by Sydney Smith (12/6/15)

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