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A misinformation war in Florida, and on Twitter

The aftermath of any school shooting is terrible, and today was worse than most. After a 19-year-old
February 15 · Issue #84 · View online
The Interface
The aftermath of any school shooting is terrible, and today was worse than most. After a 19-year-old man walked into a South Florida high school and killed 17 people, outlets raced to sort fact from fiction. And while that’s always the case in the day after an obscene crime spree like this one, journalists reported a brand-new and disturbing phenomenon: fake tweets impersonating their authentic accounts, rewritten to be inflammatory and discourage them from doing their work. 
The result of those tweets was that the journalists faced an onslaught of abuse on Twitter, during a critical time when they were using it for reporting purposes. Here’s Poynter:
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.
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.
The motivation for this harassment is unclear. It may have a political motive, or it may simply be malicious trolling. In any case, Twitter utterly failed to address the situation — despite having rules in place that prohibit impersonation, and despite several months of loudly proclaiming how seriously the company takes abuse. Here’s BuzzFeed on why the abuse likely prevented journalists from reaching witnesses or other sources of relevant information:
It’s difficult to tell how it impacted the reporting she was able to do, but she thinks it probably had an effect. “I think it genuinely might have made a difference to some of the people I reached out to,” she said.
Harris has covered shootings before, including at the Pulse nightclub and Fort Lauderdale airport. This is the worst online abuse she’s ever received.
“I had literally thousands of messages and they just filled up my mentions and DMs with terrible, racist, sexist, horrific, graphic death threats,” she said. “I got Facebook messages sent directly to my private account that had the same content too. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.” 
Renee DiResta had a good thread on this: “Twitter’s party line here is a pathetic cop-out: ‘Twitter’s open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information. We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth.’ They need to be the arbiter of *integrity* in these situations.”
Meanwhile, mainstream sources spent the day essentially debating with one another whether the suspect was or was not a member of a white supremacist group. (Local law enforcement said late Thursday that he was not, though this did not seem likely to be the last word on the matter, and the suspect had posted a variety of racist and murdery comments on various social media sites.) Given the high stakes, I wish some outlets had shown more restraint before publishing what they had been told. But on a breaking national news story that is being live-tweeted by the victims, restraint can feel like too much to hope for.
We started the week talking about what Charlie Warzel calls the “Infocalypse” — the moment where, thanks largely to artificial intelligence, we can no longer easily distinguish between fact and fiction. On this miserable news day, it felt like that moment had already arrived.

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