Two incidents hit The Miami Herald in recent days that underscore new tactics by those seeking to discredit mainstream media, and they augur what experts said are dark days in the battle between credible news and misinformation.
Both incidents came in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 when a teenage gunman killed 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In the first incident, a perpetrator used a software tool to create two fake tweets that looked like they came from the account of Alex Harris, a Herald reporter preparing tributes to the slain students. One fake tweet asked for photos of dead bodies at the school and another asked if the shooter was white.
The reporter almost immediately began getting angry messages.
“It was hampering our ability to cover this terrible tragedy in our own backyard because we’re having to deal with the backlash,” said Aminda Marques, executive editor of The Herald.
In a second incident, someone again used a software tool to create a phony Miami Herald story — in the high tension following the Parkland shooting — saying that a Miami-Dade middle school faced threats of “potentially catastrophic events” on upcoming dates, indicating that a new mass shooting was in the offing.
Screenshots of that fake story were passed along on Twitter and Snapchat, two social media platforms, said Monique O. Madan, a Herald reporter whose byline appeared on the fake story.
“It looks super real. They use the same font that we use. It has our masthead. It has my byline. If I weren’t a journalist, I wouldn’t think twice about it,” Madan said.
Worried parents and teachers grew alarmed, thinking it was a real Herald story. Dozens called or messaged Madan. “My phone just would not stop ringing,” she said.
The motive behind the hoaxes was not clear, but someone sought to create alarm.
“It seems to be consistent with a pattern of people trying to disparage or discredit the news media,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Wasserman is a former executive business editor at The Herald and columnist on the media for McClatchy.
SOURCE: TIM JOHNSON