The amount of fake news about the Texas shooter is absolutely terrifying

November 7, 2017

By now, you’ve heard about the November 5th massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a lone gunman walked into the First Baptist Church and fatally shot at least 28 people and wounded 20 more before taking his own life. As with most breaking news these days, social media was a flurry of unconfirmed reports and updates about the ongoing situation. There was also fake news about the Texas shooter on the internet, which seemed to heavily outweigh factual reporting. Even as late as Monday morning, Google search results and “most popular” news sections on Facebook were still highlighting some of the initial, totally false accounts about the shooter’s identity and his motives.

UZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images

By now, you’ve heard about the November 5th massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a lone gunman walked into the First Baptist Church and fatally shot at least 28 people and wounded 20 more before taking his own life. As with most breaking news these days, social media was a flurry of unconfirmed reports and updates about the ongoing situation. There was also fake news about the Texas shooter on the internet, which seemed to heavily outweigh factual reporting. Even as late as Monday morning, Google search results and “most popular” news sections on Facebook were still highlighting some of the initial, totally false accounts about the shooter’s identity and his motives.

The shooter’s identity has since been confirmed by local law enforcement. He was a 26-year-old lone gunman who used a Ruger AR-556 rifle that he bought legally in 2016 to carry out the shooting. According to NBC, the shooter was an ex-member of the U.S. Air Force, who was court marshaled in 2012 for domestic assault on his wife and child. He received a “bad conduct” discharge and a reduced rank in 2014. On Monday, law enforcement confirmed that the shooter had threatened his mother-in-law days before the shooting.

Covering breaking news is really hard for reporters. Back during the Arab Spring, when Twitter was legitimized as a useful, if not entirely perfect, way to report important breaking news, many in the media industry wrung their hands about how journalists could confirm reports from “citizen journalists,” or non-professional reporters, on the ground.

Since then, most media outlets are usually well-intentioned and very intentional in their efforts to make sure readers and viewers know that a story is “developing” or that the facts they are reporting are just allegations until verified and confirmed through reliable channels. But the problem of “fake news” has gotten much harder to tackle over the years, especially since there appear to be bots, trolls, and highly partisan websites that exist for the sole purpose of misinforming, misleading, and inciting people’s most base responses to highly sensitive news like a shooting.

On Sunday, fake reports about the shooting were flung around social media as if they were true. Savvy media users were able to quickly spot the bullsh*t, but not before the information was disseminated all over the internet, to the point that even government and law enforcement were quoting blatantly untrue things.

On CNN, for example, Texas Rep. Vicente González told anchor Ana Cabrera that he had “been told” that the shooter was a man named Sam Hyde. In an email statement to HelloGiggles, CNN spokesperson Blair Cofield pointed to a transcript of the exchange, which shows that after the congressman erroneously identified the shooter, Cabrera clarified that law enforcement hadn’t yet confirmed the identity of the shooter to the CNN newsroom. (FYI: You can always find transcripts of cable news broadcasts by searching “transcripts” and “MSNBC,” or whatever network it is, when you want to confirm or quote something you just heard.)

But that’s the thing about fake news: When viewers are watching a breaking report and hear a congressman identify the shooter, they can understandably take that as confirmation and go on about their day, just assuming that they already know the facts. Hey, it was on a respected (for the most part) news network and a congressman said it — that should be trustworthy. It’s much harder for people to hear, for whatever reason, the correction or clarification that often happens too late.

Sam Hyde is always named as a shooter when these things happen, BTW.

You can’t totally blame CNN reporters and fact-checkers for not being aware of every single internet hoax out there, but the “Sam Hyde” thing is pretty well-known. It would have been so much better if CNN’s producers, even just one, knew that Sam Hyde is never real.

This is fake news.

BuzzFeed did a report last year about how Hyde being named as the shooter in pretty much every single mass shooting originated on 4chan, a digital playground for trolls and often far-right sympathizers. Hyde is a YouTube prankster, but it’s not clear how the “tradition” of him being named as a mass murderer began. Nonetheless, it happens. Like, every single time, including the recent shooting in Las Vegas.

Sam Hyde is never the shooter’s name.

Other stories, also originating on 4Chan, spread around the internet, too. Like a picture of YouTube star “Reviewbrah” being used as a missing person in every major tragedy. After the bombing in Manchester, according to BuzzFeed, he released a video confirming that he was alive.

There were also fake mockups of a Facebook page made on Sunday that fronted as that of the Texas shooter, showing that he was a member of Antifa and posted loving selfies with his gun. These Facebook pages and articles circulate after what seems like every gun-related tragedy. The shooter was also erroneously identified as a Democrat, a Muslim, and a guy named Chris Ward all while law enforcement was still trying to figure out what happened.

The only reason this fake news spreads is because people share it.

In addition to slowing down to check a news source or question the origin of a story, it’s up to everyone to stop and think before sharing that story with their social networks. But sometimes that’s hard to do, especially when the algorithms over at Facebook and Google make it so that these fake news stories are actually recommended. Not everyone is an expert in the bowels of the internet and can spot a hoax like the Sam Hyde thing right away; it’s totally understandable that when you search for news on the Texas shooter, you might click on the first thing that pops up. And if the first thing is fake, it’s not your fault for engaging with it, but the tech companies who are tasked with returning those results.

Fake news isn’t a joke.

It has been treated as one, though, especially since the 2016 campaign and throughout Donald Trump’s presidency so far, as he often alleges that anything negative about him or his administration isn’t credible. But fake news actually worked *for* him in the election.

According to report from Stanford University, 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media, and during the election, fake news stories were circulated more than mainstream news stories, which are fact-checked and verified by journalists as opposed to partisan bloggers. For example, almost half of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats believed one of those fake news stories, dubbed “Pizzagate,” which alleged that the DNC and the Clinton campaign were running a child pornography ring out of a D.C. pizzeria. With numbers like that, fake news theoretically could have affected how people voted in the 2016 election.

That’s why when Trump disparages credible news sources as being “fake,” it’s so dangerous. Because he’s dismantling trust in actual journalism and reporting and endorsing partisan outlets that do no actual reporting and share fake news as part of their business model.

It might seem like no big thing that some people initially believed the Texas shooter was a member of Antifa or that he’s some guy named Sam. But the proliferation of those fake stories make it hard for the country to have a rational and informed conversation about important issues such as immigration, gun reform, or, really, anything.

Sites like Facebook and Google have pledged to try to fix their “fake news problem,” but so far have been unsuccessful, as the spread of fake news about Sunday’s shooting in Texas prove. We have to remember that both sites are for-profit companies, and while they pledge to do right, a sense of urgency is lacking as long as people are clicking and spending time on their platforms. Social media and search engines companies can’t stop every troll from spreading wrong information, nor can they stop your not-so-savvy aunt on Facebook from sharing a fake news story, but better systems are necessary when it comes to tackling the problem.

Fake news is dangerous because these stories inform people’s opinions. If we’re really serious about reforming laws and policies, it’s up to everyone to work against the release and social sharing of false information. It’s not easy to change people’s minds once they’ve read a headline.

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