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Scary stuff: How fabricators attacked Miami paper after school shooting

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I am not in favor of censorship.

And it’s amazing that I have to say that, but there it is.

What I’m opposed to are the dissemination of fabrications, bogus conspiracy theories and fake propaganda accounts that cause damage to individuals, to groups and to our country.

When I spoke about this on the air, I quickly heard from folks who embrace some of these conspiracy theories and who flung the charge of censorship. I fully acknowledge, and have said before, that a crackdown on fakery and propaganda risks stomping on people’s free speech rights. But I believe it’s possible without undermining those rights, as long as one set of political views isn’t unfairly targeted.

The temperature level has of course shot way up in the wake of the Florida school shooting. And now comes a dramatic case study from Miami.

McClatchy has a chilling report on one of its papers, the Miami Herald—chilling, that is, if you care about the future of journalism.

Some hacker managed 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.”

Such tweets are designed to discredit the reporter and the newspaper through old-fashioned lies.

That wasn’t all. The perpetrator also managed “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.”

After screenshots of the fictitious story were shared on Twitter and Snapchat, Monique Madan, the Herald reporter whose byline was slapped on the story, said: “It looks super real. They use the same font that we use. It has our masthead. It has my byline. If I were’t a journalist, I wouldn’t think twice about it.”

And talk about real-world consequences. Of course parents, students and teachers at the middle school would be scared by such a story and blame the Herald for fomenting fear.

As technology makes it easier to create fake tweets, fake stories, even fake videos, the potential for undermining those who try to cover real news.

We’ve also seen stark evidence of this as the Russians, during and since the 2016 campaign, have used bots and bogus accounts to try to disrupt American politics, first to push Donald Trump’s candidacy and most recently to exploit divisions over the Florida shooting.

On Sunday’s “Media Buzz,” I questioned why Facebook, Google, YouTube and other social media sites can’t do a better job of cracking down on fakery and propaganda. They’ve all admitted shortcomings and promised to do better, but one reason is that they don’t want to invest the substantial sums that it would take.

YouTube has apologized for inadvertently promoting a video calling Florida shooting survivor David Hogg an “actor.” A 51-year-old Idaho man with under 1,000 followers posted footage of Hogg being interviewed by local TV last year for having witnessed a confrontation at a California beach—the clear implication being that he’s an actor who wasn’t really at the Parkland high school.

That video drew more than 200,000 views and hit No. 1 on YouTube before apologizing and deleting it for violating policies against bullying and harassment.

Conspiratorial stuff will always find an audience. But in an age when bad actors can use technology to literally fabricate the news, journalism outlets—including social media companies that profit from journalism—have to be constantly on guard.

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