Alex Harris, a journalist with the Miami-Herald, reached out using social media in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack on February 14. She sent out a query on Twitter, seeking anyone to talk. Like many journalists, social sourcing is critical to her work, especially in breaking news scenarios, Harris said in an interview with NPR. “Twitter is where you reach out to people who are self-selected saying, I’m in this situation, I am in a place where I can say something on social media.”
She sent the tweet. And the dark web sent back an altered, Photoshopped version, suggesting that Harris was inappropriately soliciting stories from witnesses.
And then the doctored tweets went viral, fueled by a deep distrust of the media. The doctored tweet provided confirmation bias to a Twitter audience that hollers #fakemedia.
But this WAS #fakemedia. And the detail of the Photoshopped tweet, complete with a time-stamp and a check indicating a Twitter verified account, did fool many, including other journalists who retweeted the fakes.
What Harris Did Right
Harris quickly tweeted about the false tweets, getting in front of the swarm. She specified how the language of the tweet had been altered, without retweeting the original. Harris did not go after each of the trolls; she stated the facts of what was happening online.
Harris reported the activity right away to Twitter. Even though it was futile, Harris forced @Twitter to respond on the platform. The public engagement with @TwitterSupport was visible in her social stream, verifying that she was actively engaged around the issue with Twitter.
Harris forced @Twitter to clarify its policies. Imposter accounts are against the rules. Imposter tweets are not, said @TwitterSupport And she got Jack Dorsey to admit he has no scalable solution. Twitter executives will take to Capitol Hill on Monday, March 5 to explain to lawmakers why the platform is challenged when fighting #fakenews and disinformation.
Harris quickly garnered online support. Fellow journalists, including Wes Lowery of the Washington Post jumped in and amplified Harris’ call that she was being impersonated through the doctored tweets. Others offered emotional support against the barrage of outrage coming at Harris. Some even helped to explain how journalists work, justifying Harris’ actions and bolstering her professionally online.
Mixed in with the Twitter swarm were critiques of Harris’ professional work and how she had conducted herself online. But as Harris pointed out to NPR’s Ari Shapiro, “Twitter is everything in these breaking news scenarios because media these days relies even more and more on first-person accounts. And you don’t always trust law enforcement to give you the perfectly correct information the first time around or as quickly as people want it and as quickly as people need it.”
But the same speed advantage that Twitter provides to journalists to get those first-person reports also accelerates the swarm effect. Harris feels that the Twitter storm made it difficult for her to do her job.
The imposter tweets had achieved their objective – to cast doubt on the credibility of a journalist. And according to Harris, the tweets diminished the overall reporting efforts of her team, impeding their ability to tell the story.
What TrollBusters Did
Team TrollBusters was monitoring online when the attack against Harris was happening. We went into action:
- We put a warning tweet into Harris’ Twitter feed. We let the trolls know that we were monitoring activity on her feed. And we let Harris know that she could report to TrollBusters and we would continue to actively monitor her account.
- TrollBusters began to monitor Harris’ feed, capturing activity for future evidence.
- We amplified her message that she was under attack to our followers.
- We began digital forensics work to determine who was the source of the attack.
- We actively reported suspicious tweets to Twitter.
- We discovered bot accounts behind much of the retweet activity. We reported bot activity to Twitter.
Beyond our introduction tweet, we don’t operate in someone’s feed without their permission. Had Harris reached out and reported her online abuse at http://www.troll-busters.com, we would have been able to reach out with additional resources to protect her and her online reputation.
If you’re experiencing harassment online, or know of someone who is, you can report an incident to TrollBusters at http://troll-busters.com/form-report-an-incident.html.