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Lessons to be learned from the ROF Florida shooting hoax

Speed can be a reporter’s best friend in a breaking news situation.

When Jordan Jereb, the white supremacist leader of the militia the Republic of Florida (ROF), claimed that the school shooter in Parkland, Florida, had been a member of his group, speed also proved to be a reporter’s worst enemy.

When multiple news outlets reported Jereb’s words that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz trained with his group, it took what started as a joke in alt-right forums and injected it into the mainstream media bloodstream.

For some on the alt-right, particularly the trolls who would rather fight for “the lulz” than the supremacy of the white race, Jereb’s claim of credit has been a much-celebrated moment of duping the mainstream media.

Others on the far-right took the bait themselves. Noted troll Andrew Anglin ran with the notion that Cruz was affiliated with Jereb and ROF and paid particular attention to Jereb’s apparent espousal of iconography associated with the violence-prone neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division.

As for the media, the mistake meant spending a day rolling back the story, as Jereb’s claims fell apart under scrutiny.

Multiple news outlets reported that Jereb had “confirmed” the shooter’s membership in the ROF. But that confirmation appears to have leaned heavily on Jereb’s word. He told media outlets the same thing again and again without offering any kind of solid proof to back up his claims. In general, violent racists don’t top anyone’s list of reliable sources, but Jereb is exceptionally untrustworthy. In the radical right, he’s known for his attention-seeking behavior. Leaders prominent in the movement have dismissed him as a LARPer (live action role player), a common disparagement meant to call into question someone’s dedication or usefulness to the cause. Florida League of the South leader and violent felon Michael Tubbs even called him “a nutjob who should be avoided.”

His publicity stunt went over well with the trolls of 4chan and the like, who delighted in pulling one over on the mainstream media. But he drew the ire of white nationalists who resented the fact that his deceit labeled the shooter a racist on national news and beyond. Jereb later took to the right-wing social media site Gab, where he is a “premium creator” to claim he was misunderstood and misinterpreted by the reporters — again without any proof. While some Gab users praised the “prank,” most were angry. “You are a traitor to the cause, and should eat a bullet as recompense,” one user fumed.

Andrew Anglin attempted to shrug off having taken the bait himself, describing it as a “breddy gud troll,” a begrudging recognition that he himself had fallen for an easily recognizable far right hoax ripped directly from his own playbook. All of this after chiding Jereb and the prank’s progenitors by stating “Don’t ever meme anything you don’t believe in. There is no such thing as irony when it comes to meme magic.”

As the hours rolled on after Jereb’s claim about Cruz, law enforcement agencies kept digging for a motive and any ties between Cruz and an organized white supremacist group.

By the end of Thursday, Leon County, Florida, Sheriff’s Lt. Grady Jordan said there were “no known ties.”.

That statement confirmed what many on the alt-right already knew: Cruz wasn’t one of them – at least not in any real, organized sense — and that Jereb’s hoax proved successful beyond their wildest dreams. The whole debacle distracted from other leads still being followed that suggest the shooter may have been steeped in racist rhetoric of some kind, though the extent of his involvement, and whether or not this influenced his crime, is unknown.

The idea of claiming credit started as a gag on sites like 4chan: Tell a reporter that Cruz was a violent alt-right adherent and white supremacist and see if the media bites because it fits into a preconceived storyline. Jereb’s name surfaced for reporters because some posters in the alt-right trolling sphere get a kick out of mocking him.

When Jereb’s claims actually hit the national news, some on the alt-right could barely believe it.

“I finally began to digest the news on Gab about how this had been a prank that had started on TRS or 4chan where Jordan Jereb is a meme and that Jereb had confirmed the story on a phone call with the ADL,” wrote Brad Griffin, the proprietor of the website Occidental Dissent. “I’ve always thought of Jordan Jereb as a harmless autiste in Tallahassse who runs a LARP group. I began to wonder if this was all a troll in light of the ROFL’s actions in the past like the time they proclaimed Florida had seceded from the United States and issued their own currency."

It’s not the first time such a strategy has been tried.

On 4chan, a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, right wing chatter and internet muck, users have been floating the name and image of low-rent online comic Sam Hyde after mass shootings since 2015.

It’s unclear why Hyde was chosen or if he started out as being in on the gag. He was blamed after the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017, when a Texas congressman fell for the ruse. Hyde’s name and image turned up many times in the hours after the shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, promoted on Twitter by, among others, President Donald Trump and former Fox News bloviate Bill O’Reilly.

This is not the first time haste and questionable sourcing fed a significant mistake.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, multiple errant reports went out. The New York Post mistakenly identified a high school student, Salah Barhoun, as a bombing suspect. After seeing his picture on TV and all over social media, he sought help at a police station to clear his name.

In the days that followed, CNNFox News and the AP mistakenly reported that the Boston police had made an arrest. All three outlets rolled back their stories within hours, then retracted the earlier reporting.

“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions,” then President Barack Obama said in a statement April 20, 2013, a day after 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. “But when a tragedy like this happens … it’s important that we do this right.”

After Thursday’s fiasco, “doing this right” may become a lot harder. Back in December 2016, Richard Spencer advised fellow white supremacists to maintain a professional rapport with the media, which he said was an indispensable vehicle to get a platform to reach the masses. But the jubilant responses from some parts of the alt-right following Jereb’s hoax suggest that some of them may prefer to turn the media into a punchline for their amusement. Reporters covering high-stakes, breaking news tragedies, in addition to confronting the usual obstacles to due diligence, need to watch for trolls coming out of the woodwork eager to play them for fools.

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