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The mail bombing suspect was Extremely Online

I had a great time yesterday at the content moderation conference COMO III, where I got to meet many
October 26 · Issue #235 · View online
The Interface
I had a great time yesterday at the content moderation conference COMO III, where I got to meet many of you and chat about the hard work that platforms are doing to clean up their platforms. I hadn’t intended to do a newsletter today, but then I read the news and couldn’t help myself. Here you go.
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On Friday, a Florida man was arrested in connection with a string of mail bombs sent to prominent critics of President Trump, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Kamala Harris. Reporters spent the day working to unearth the social media accounts of the man, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, Jr. of southern Florida. While the authenticity of every account has yet to be confirmed, reporting so far paints a picture of a man who bought into many of the right-wing conspiracy theories that burbled up from social media, to mainstream conservative media, to the president himself.
Among other things, Sayoc appears to have been an active Trump supporter on Facebook, and an enthusiastic troll on Twitter. Here’s Adi Robertson:
The account @hardrock2016, which appears to belong to Sayoc, sent veiled death threats to liberal “slime scum,” including Vice President Joe Biden, former New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout; actor Jim Carrey; Portland, Oregon mayor Ted Wheeler; MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte; and New York Times journalist (and former Verge writer) Sarah Jeong.
At least one of the targets — Biden, who was threatened on September 18th — was among those who later had bombs addressed to them. At least one recipient — former congressional press secretary Rochelle Ritchie — apparently reported the threats to Twitter, but was told that they didn’t violate Twitter’s abuse rules. “This is an ongoing law enforcement investigation. We do not have a comment,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Verge when asked whether the messages complied with its guidelines.
One researcher, Jonathan Albright, counted the number of times that Sayoc replied on Twitter to celebrities and figures with a meme about a Parkland shooting survivor being a “crisis actor” paid by George Soros: 59.
It’s a disturbing irony. Because as authorities continued to discover new mail-bomb targets on Friday, the right wing flooded media channels with suggestions that the bombs themselves were part of a Democratic hoax. It’s a toxic circle: Man falsely enraged by crisis actors allegedly sends bombs; conservative media falsely describes bomb targets as crisis actors.
In a Twitter thread, Albright chronicled how conservatives were able to reach a much wider audience with their hoax claims on Instagram, using various features of the platform. The right wing adopted the hashtag #Soros to share many of these memes, and Instagram helpfully organized the most-engaged posts algorithmically. It auto-populated suggested searches for anyone who began to search for Soros: “soros caravan,” “soros bomb,” “soros jew,” all of which could lead users to further misinformation.
Instagram search results also auto-populated with a bunch of obviously fake Soros accounts, although many of them appear to have been taken down overnight.
On Twitter, a similar phenomenon played out, as Blake Montgomery charted at BuzzFeed. Hashtags, as usual, raced ahead of the truth:
But people on Twitter, including right-wing commentators with name recognition like Ann Coulter, James Woods, and Candace Owens, tweeted that the devices, described as being similar to pipe bombs, were a scheme concocted by Democrats to boost sympathy and turnout before the midterm elections in November. However, there is no evidence to support their claims. And neither the identity nor political affiliation of the perpetrators are known.
Still, #FAKEBOMBSCARE, #FakeBombs, and #FalseFlag — all dedicated to the conspiracy theory — trended alongside #BombScare. Many used #BombScare to tweet the theory as well, but the hashtag itself is not blatantly false like the others. #MAGABOMBER, a hashtag devoted to the idea that the bomber was a right-winger attacking the president’s nemeses, also trended, again with no proof.
In part, this is a now-old story about how social media spreads misinformation in the immediate wake of the crisis. But if Sayoc is indeed the bomber, and these social media accounts belong to him, it suggests something even more disturbing: a person steeped in conservative media, radicalized into violent action — at the same time the same echo chamber, all evidence to the contrary, dismisses a series of attempted assassinations as a hoax.
The platforms have their part to play in reducing the polarization that now consumes us. But as Albright wrote earlier in the week, in a piece about how a false meme spread alleging that Soros had funded the caravan of refugees coming to America, the infrastructure that promotes this misinformation is quite powerful. Whatever captures our attention, if we simply stare at it long enough, becomes real.
“The legitimization of the narrative happens through attention,” he wrote. “It is reinforced in click-seeking MSM headlines and fact-checks through keyword repetition. It is platformless.”

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