“Fake News” and Misinformation: Anatomy of a Smear Campaign


Using timelines and evidence, plot activity around key disclosures. Watch for patterns, paid placements, and escalation in activity around key dates. Can you figure out “Is it news…or is it twisted?”

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: This [article/blog post/spreadsheet, etc.] includes hypothetical legal analysis, however, the author of this [article/blog post/etc.] is not a lawyer and therefore this content cannot be construed as legal advice. If you are facing legal issues similar to those discussed here, you should speak to a lawyer to get qualified advice based on your specific situation.

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“Fake News” and Pay-to-Pay and “Anonymous” Pen Names and Other Schemes

Let’s examine the public disclosures in on the websites they appear and conduct an analysis of the digital artifacts. We’re searching for provenance, authenticity, veracity, corroboration, evidence, receipts, other sources.

We put the evidence, anonymous letters and other details of events and public disclosures into a timeline, where we can watch the campaign unfold on the interwebs. From my hiring date in 2018, to my public disclosures of student safety concerns with FAMU administrators, we see the start of the smear campaign in November 2019. First publication is on an anonymous blog, Rattler Nation, that has operated for more than 10 years “reporting” on FAMU actions. The anonymous article is used to mount the smear campaign and the appearance of an “embattled dean” and actions. Activity moves to another website, Capitol Outlook, which purports to be a news organization. There, “Dante Morrison” pens an article that refers back to the Rattler Nation blog as the “corroborating source” of the information in the story.

Mainstream media often becomes a tool in these information wars. Legacy news organizations and veteran journalists used the “anonymous sources” to write their own stories and bring them to a national stage. The bad actors at Rattler Nation use their Twitter account to continue the harassment of Dr. Ferrier and top administrators at FAMU, calling for my firing.

Digital lynching, or smear campaigns, operate on multiple platforms and ways to create the illusion of “negative press.” Bad actors use “anonymous sources” and links to self-referential “fake news” to generate noise and drive the event into the mainstream press. Journalists, performing their both-sideism, republish and amplify the misinformation, further spreading malicious and damaging narratives.

On March 4, 2022, I received the letter below (in blue) at my campus office. The letter included this email below. I took the email to the campus police and filed an informational report of receipt of the evidence. The email was also submitted to the provost and to campus ethics and compliance for investigation. Two days later, I was put on administrative leave. The university puts Dr. Ferrier under administrative leave, pending an internal complaint filed for using university email for personal correspondence. The administrative leave action also restricts further investigation into student abuses using our technologies and building.

I filed a cyberstalking complaint with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and filed a cyberstalking injunction against the perpetrators disclosed in the email campaign. My goal in getting before a judge was to shake loose the veracity and authenticity of the email itself, the identity of the anonymous/email, and track down the financial payments made from university accounts.

What I got was a death threat at my home, warning me to stop the investigations and litigation.

I am still employed at FAMU, to continue to call out the safety issues, the financial malfeasance and other criminal activity for our students. I also continue to educate students and journalists on fake news, digital harms and navigating online.

A “Teachable Moment”

So let’s learn what to look for to spot “fake news.”

Rattler Nation “Fake News?”

Always using my experiences as teachable moments, my students learned different verification tools, some provided by First Draft and others to rate several of the pieces published on social media and in paid placements in ethnic media under fictitious names. You can view the tutorial on Slideshare on “Mis/Disinformation and Election 2020: Verification and Monitoring Tools for Journalists.”

Our Scale for Rating “Fake News”
Misinformation/Verification and Monitoring Tools Tutorial

Later in the semester, they learned physical defensive strategies and risk assessments when reporting in physical spaces. And as a result of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, I prepared this student handbook on student press resources. In it, we assist student journalists in managing campus administrators, FOIA requests and press law.


Flipping the script; Twisting the narrative at Evergreen

Student protests drove Brett Weinstein, a professor at Evergreen College, and his wife Heather Heying to resign because of his objections to a Day of Absence, calling for only people of color to show up. Campus administration didn’t support Weinstein or protect him from internal and external student agitators calling for him to be fired. Weinstein sued the university and was recently awarded $250,000 in damages. His wife was awarded a separate $250,000 for their complaint against the university. VIDEO: https://youtu.be/2cMYfxOFBBM


The Group Assessment Is…?

Try this assessment out with other “news” outlets, stories and sources. Do they pass these simple smell tests? You be the judge.

Students in my classes learned the difference between defamation, libel and slander. They learned about public and private figures and the burden of proof of public figures to prove actual malice…the legal standard for public figures (and if you call yourself a journalist, for all intents and purposes you may be considered a public figure). They learned how bad actors write up to the letter of the law, using free speech as a shield, to strike, strike and strike again. And they learned the steps to following court records and filings, crafting FOIA requests and other strategies for gathering evidence and verifying authenticity and tracking down anonymous bad actors.

Tallahassee Democrat Assessment

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters. She can be reached at report@troll-busters.com.

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