3 things journalism folk should learn from a troll during the Las Vegas shooting

Many people awoke Monday to the news that a gunman had killed 50 people and injured 400 more in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old man from Mesquite, Nevada who police have named as the shooter, was killed on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel after the attack.

Police said he fired repeatedly from the hotel onto a country western music festival happening across the street along the Las Vegas Strip. Witnesses said the shooting was relentless and police have no motive for the attack at this time.

For some people, it was a time to question who we are as a nation. For others, it was frantic search for loved ones and a time to mourn those they knew who died or who cling to life.

For still others, it was time to be an a-hole.

A Twitter user posting under the name “Jack Sins” posted that he was desperately seeking his father, who was missing after the attack:

JackSins

It turns out that this was a fraud. The profile photo was the same one used elsewhere to pull the same stunt during the Manchester attack. In addition, it’s an internet meme. The “lost dad?” He’s porn star Johnny Sins.

Mashable reached out to this user to find out why he would use a horrific shooting to do something like this. His answer is almost more repugnant than his actions:

Mashable reached out to the troll to ask why he’s spreading misinformation during such a critical time.

“I think you know why,” he replied. “For the retweets :)”

He also said he’d probably do it again.

The point of the post isn’t to shame this guy, as that’s got to be impossible, but rather to provide a learning moment for journalism students who are starting off in the field and might be inclined to rely on social media for information. Consider these three takeaways from this situations:

  1. If your mother says she love you, go check it out: Part of the thing that separates journalism folk from some other media users is a dedication to separating fact from fiction and providing accurate information. Early reports in the wake of a chaotic event are almost always inaccurate at some level, so journalists always have to proceed with caution. Even in this case, media reports note erroneous reports about additional shooters at other properties along the strip. Some of those are based on honest errors while others are simply rumors that spread. Your job is to go out there and figure out what is right and what isn’t before publishing it. That’s especially true of things you see from sources you don’t know, which leads to point two…
  2. Sources matter: One of the big things we push in J-school is the use of official sources acting in an official capacity for a couple reasons: a) It protects you in case of information being erroneous or potentially libelous, thanks to the issue of privilege; b) Official sources have names and titles you can verify and they also tend to be much more conservative with what they say because they know they will be held to account for it. However, in cases like this, it’s not possible to ignore the human angle and simply churn out police-report-level data. This is why interviewing people who survived, people who escaped and other similar “real people.” The biggest thing you should do is verify your sources before you publish them. The people at the scene have a somewhat easier time doing this, as many reports noted people covered in blood or hunkering near injured friends. It’s hard to fake that, even if they wanted to. However, social media users can be sending information from anywhere and can do so with impunity.
    To that end, you really need to fact check the heck out of your sources when you can’t do a face-to-face interview. Look at how long the source has been on that platform, how many followers they have, what other posts/tweets they have made and what other topics they have covered. Treat this vetting the way you would any other “anonymous tip” that comes to you from a source you don’t know. Unless you are sure, don’t repost it. It’s your reputation and the reputation of your news organization on the line.
  3. People can be a-holes: If you read the interview between this troll and Mashable, it’s a pretty safe bet your thoughts will be somewhere along the lines of, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” Most people have gotten some level of internet hoax or email blast where a king in Naganaworkhere has a squillion dollars in gold that he wants to give you, once you send him your bank account numbers and we know that’s crap. It’s also a pretty easy thing to explain: Somebody wants to dupe rubes out of their money.
    When it comes to something like this, the question of “Why?” is less obvious. The retweets aren’t going to be all that helpful in a lot of ways. Sure, there are ways to monetize heavily trafficked social media accounts, but beyond that’s going to be a one-hit wonder at best.
    As much as many people want to believe in the best in people and help people in a time of crisis, there are some folks out there who just want to screw with you for no good reason. As an individual, that can feel like a sting when you realize you contributed to the spreading of false information on a “gotcha” prank. As a journalist, there are far larger impacts. It never feels good to question people in the time of crisis, but if you remember that not everyone has the best of intentions, you can reasonably and tactfully apply a healthy level of skepticism to claims like this.

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