I fell for a right-wing hoax. Then I called the guy who pranked me.
The day after Donald Trump was elected, I asked for submissions on Twitter from victims of election-related intimidation, harassment and threats. Racist and anti-Semitic graffiti had cropped up in cities across the country, and reports of hate crimes had started to trickle in.
Shortly after, I received an email from someone who identified herself as a Native American woman named Laurel Nelson. She said a Trump supporter had bumped into her at a Starbucks, spilling her coffee. "Just walk away and be lucky that coffee is the only thing of yours that spills," the man said, according to Nelson. "You shouldn't even be in this country, and you wont be for long." When Nelson responded that Native Americans "were actually here first," she claimed the man replied, "Doesn't matter. White is right."
I asked Nelson if I could post her email on Twitter while withholding her identity. She agreed.
On Black Friday, a reporter from the Daily Caller, a right-wing publication (for which I interned in the summer of 2013), emailed me, telling me that I had fallen for a hoax and asking for comment. Nelson, it turns out, was actually conservative vlogger Matthew Christiansen. Christiansen teamed up with a friend to create "Laurel Nelson" to see whether I would check the accuracy of her story, which cast a Trump supporter in a negative light, before posting it.
"What's stronger? Real hate or the thirst for victimization?" Christiansen asked in a video posted to YouTube.
He argued that journalists were so willing to accept stories that violent Trump supporters were attacking minorities that they failed to verify these claims. My tweet was his exhibit A. In the video, Christiansen explained that he had sent me an additional email, still claiming to be Nelson, saying she could not verify if her attacker was a Trump supporter and that it might be unfair to label him one. In the video, he claimed I ignored his follow-up, further proof that I wasn't about to let facts get in the way of a preconceived narrative.
I didn't see that follow-up email until after the Daily Caller published its story on Nov. 25. But I indeed took Nelson's story at face value. In this case, I was sympathetic to a terrible story, and felt an urgency to share it. And in the process, I fell into the trap of thinking of Twitter as a forum for open conversation, where reporters can think aloud, gets tips and share often undigested information. If I had written a story, I would not only have called Nelson, the piece would have been edited and fact-checked. Laurel Nelson just wouldn't have made it onto Mic.
In the current hyper-partisan news environment, this skepticism is even more important: By failing to verify "Nelson's" story, I helped conservative commentators justify doubt on the story of genuine victims. Journalists need not only be wary of trolls but those seeking to exploit the media for their own gain. Yasmin Seweid, an 18-year-old Muslim teenager, told authorities that on Dec. 1 three men shouted "Donald Trump!" and attempted to rip her hijab off on a subway train. After the investigation, Seweid confessed to New York Police Department detectives she had made up the story citing family problems. On Wednesday, the NYPD arrested Seweid for filing a false report of a hate crime.
I certainly should've known better. I had seen other journalists fall for hoaxes on social media. In November 2013, Vox's Ezra Klein and CNN's Christiane Amanpour were duped by a fake Twitter account from "Rep. Steve Smith," who advocated for impeaching President Barack Obama. Smith does not exist. In the Columbia Journalism Review, media reporter Alicia Shepard wrote about sharing a fake news story about Kanye West claiming to be the next Nelson Mandela from the Daily Currant, a satire site so unfunny it's a frequent source of confusion.
Shepard, who was alerted to her mistake by friends, characterized it as "an impulse-control problem fostered by the internet." But she also noted that social media — and the fact everyone can be a publisher — has given rise to an army of trolls dedicated to spreading misinformation, for fun and for political gain.
Right-wing media figures like Project Veritas' James O'Keefe conduct sting operations — at times breaking the law in the process — to expose the hypocrisy of liberal organizations, civil servants and the media. Often, as was the case with O'Keefe's exposé on community activist group ACORN, these resulting videos are heavily edited. Nevertheless, O'Keefe's misinformation campaign prompted Congress to defund the organization. Other groups have used such tactics to go after Planned Parenthood and NPR.
(And there's money in it: According to the New Yorker, federal tax filings show Project Veritas' budget doubling from $1.2 million in 2013 to $2.4 million in 2014.)
"It seems like we've reached a tipping point. Initially, there were only a few viral hoaxes," Shepard wrote. "Now, with the immense popularity of social media, they are happening almost daily. We are deluged with information coming at us like a firehose — and news organizations and journalists are falling for them."
I fell for it because I made an error in judgment. But I also was targeted. Why?
"It seemed like you were looking for stories that affirmed your bias or your preconceived conclusions and you grabbed the one and ran with it," Christiansen told me over the phone.
He said he had friends who also sent me emails claiming to have been attacked because they supported Trump, and that I didn't do anything about those. I went back and searched my inbox and didn't find those emails.
Still, Christiansen is right that everyone tends to believe stories that conform to their own view of the world. But I didn't post that email on Twitter because I don't care about the truth. I felt the urge to share it because it seemed to conform to a well-documented pattern. The FBI, for example, reported hate crimes targeting Muslims rose by 67% in 2015. By Nov. 29, the Southern Poverty Law Center said that it had received nearly 900 reports of harassment in the 10 days following Trump's election.
I wouldn't doubt the possibility of a Trump supporter being attacked, but it doesn't fit into a pattern. Laurel Nelson's story, unfortunately, did.
Christiansen, though, doesn't believe those very solid, very accepted statistics. Instead, he says, he doubts any claims of threats or violence from conservatives against minorities. "When evidence surfaces," Christiansen said, "I will happily abandon my skepticism."
For someone who spent a lot of effort to try and prove I have a bias, he seems awfully unwilling to admit he has a big one of his own.