Anatomy of a Fake News Story

At the height of yesterday’s scramble for information about the horrific breaking news scene in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a Neo-Nazi’s tweet was used by a Santa Monica news outlet to identify the shooter as a convert to Islam. Follow me here, because while it isn’t physics, the story is a bit confusing.

It begins for me with scrolling Facebook and finding a post from a friend – an outspoken Christian woman in Australia – with a link to the Santa Monica Observer and a headline: “Islamic Convert is Shooter in Church Shooting in Sutherland. He Left Online Manifesto.” I’ve been fighting Islamophobia for a great many years, and so this peaked my interest. I’d seen this nowhere else and had suspicions about its truthfulness.

The Santa Monica Observer has a questionable reputation. In fact, Santa Monica itself seems to have a lot of experience with fake news and fake news sites. It would be a great study for someone interested in the role of journalistic dishonesty in a single community. I’ve no wish to prove or disprove that this free newspaper is a source of fake news, only that it participated in this particular event.

Below is a screen grab of the same link today. Note two things. The company is partially backing away from the story, although the sub-headline still contains a reference to the Islamic connection. Most importantly, however, note the link displayed in the browser, as it contains the original headline. This happens often with content management software when a headline is changed in the copy, because the link is established based on the original headline.

The article sources the claim as follows:

Mustachio Tweeted: “#texaschurchshooting shooter is 29 year old US Airman turned Muslim convert, Samir Al-Hajeed. His manifesto is making its rounds on the web.”

The Arab name provided – Samir Al-Hajeed – has been used in other fake news stories about mass shootings, including Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock.

“Mustachio” is Millennial Matt™ Groyper, and the account has been active for a month. Ol’ Millennial Matt™ has a profile picture identifying himself as a Kekistani, a Reddit White Supremacist group that satirically worships a god with a frog head and Donald Trump’s hair. The group’s flag is a take-off on the Nazi flag and is often seen at Neo-Nazi, Alt-Right, and White Supremacy rallies. How and why the Santa Monica Observer would come across this tweet isn’t known, but the most obvious explanation is that the paper follows the account. Either that, or they were tipped and failed to follow through on the obvious conflict-of-interest.

The point is that the Santa Monica Observer article’s premise is utterly false.

Finally, to the woman who posted this link on Facebook (you know who you are), you are responsible for this and will be held accountable in the end for bearing a false witness, which I seem to recall is anathema to the God you say you serve. Christianity Today yesterday published an article about how gullible evangelicals are to this sort of thing based on activities by the Russians during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

“Army of Jesus” was among 470 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg…
…the fake Christian account had over 217,000 likes. (For comparison, that’s more Facebook likes than some established, politically conservative evangelical media outlets, such as World or Charisma magazines.)

Let’s face it: Many Evangelical Christians are easily manipulated and believe many things that are false to be true, simply because they resonate with deeply-held beliefs. My friend in Australia is apparently one of them.