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'Miami Herald' Journalist Explains How A Hoax Tweet Affected Her Reporting On Shooting


Since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., it has been difficult to distinguish real information from fake. There have been videos, tweets, even stories that appear to be news articles with storylines that are blatantly false. The reporter Alex Harris was caught in the middle of one of those. She's a reporter with the Miami Herald who has been working nonstop on the Parkland story, and she joins us now to describe what happened just after the attack. Hi, Alex.

ALEX HARRIS: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: On February 14, that Wednesday, the day of the shooting, you were scrambling to make contact with witnesses of the attack. And somebody created a screenshot of a tweet that looked like it came from you. Can you describe what happened?

HARRIS: So in the kind of the chaos after the shooting, one of the first things reporters do is try to find witnesses, survivors, people who want to talk about what happened and you can offer first-person information. So while I was reaching out to a bunch of people, I noticed people were upset with me for doing that. And at some point, it turned into someone who got upset enough about what I was doing to fake a screenshot of one of my tweets. So in my mentions, I saw someone tweeted a screenshot at me that was a tweet that I had sent earlier, but they changed a sentence in the middle to say, do you have any photos or videos of dead bodies, which is something I never tweeted.

Then another one popped up that seemed to make people even more angry. It was another screenshot of a tweet that I had actually sent, but they changed the sentence in the middle to say, did you see the shooter, was he white? And that seems to have hit some kind of nerve. And that just flooded my inbox and it flooded my mentions on Twitter just with all sorts of abuse from people who thought I was approaching the story with some sort of agenda or I was race-baiting or whatever word they want to use to describe it.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any idea who was responsible for these?

HARRIS: I don't. We've tried to do a little bit - when we can - obviously we're focusing more on the shooting. But we've taken some time to try to look back and see. I've seen it posted on Reddit, on 4chan, on a bunch of white nationalist forums. But we haven't quite figured out where it started from.

SHAPIRO: Have you had any response from Twitter about whether there is anything they can do?

HARRIS: Well, the initial response from Twitter was really unsatisfactory for me. I reported every tweet where someone sent me the screenshot. I reported them for abuse, for harassment, from impersonation. And Twitter sent me back continuous this is not a violation of our policy, so nothing was done. Twitter's policy on impersonation only covers people who impersonate an entire account, not a specific tweet. The way Twitter explained it to me and to other journalists is that they want to shy away from censorship, and it's not up to them to be the arbiters of truth in this situation.

Jack Dorsey from Twitter did reach out to me, though, and he apologized for everything that's kind of happened and kind of gave me the same line about they really don't have a scalable solution for this yet. But he did offer to run solutions by me when his team - as they come up with them in the future.

SHAPIRO: Do you find that satisfying?

HARRIS: I mean, no (laughter). It seems pretty clear-cut to me. This is obvious fake news. It is obviously a hoax. And it is obviously being sent out there so people can harass me and target me with abuse.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any recommendations for news consumers who are trying to distinguish real from fake?

HARRIS: I mean, this was a really convincing fake. I probably would have fallen for it myself. It was really well-Photoshopped. And I saw people asking me on Twitter, how can it be false if you've got that time stamp? How can it be false if you have the blue verified check mark? I think people should be very wary of screenshots. If you can find a link to a live tweet, that's what you should look for. When you see some sort of tweet and it makes you angry or it makes you upset, you should probably follow that and see if that's coming from a place of someone trying to inform you of the news or someone just trying to kind of sow a little chaos.

SHAPIRO: For a reporter covering a breaking news story like this one, how important a tool is Twitter?

HARRIS: Twitter is everything in these breaking news scenarios because media these days relies even more and more on first-person accounts. And you don't always trust law enforcement to give you the perfectly correct information the first time around or as quickly as people want it and as quickly as people need it. Twitter is where you reach out to people who are self-selected saying, I'm in this situation, I am in a place where I can say something on social media. And it also gives you the opportunity to ask them once or twice, say, hi, this is me.

Here's a link to who I represent, and I'd like to talk to you. And they get the choice to get back to you and agree to an interview or to ignore you. And that's - it self-selects for people who want to tell their stories and want to share.

SHAPIRO: Alex Harris, a reporter with Miami Herald, thanks for joining us.

HARRIS: Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And if you want to follow her on Twitter, she is @harrisalexc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.