These tweets early in the San Bernardino shooting Wednesday attracted a lot of media attention, including a blog post from me last night and the initial version of this post (most of which will be retained here, with updates noted):
As I noted in both posts, this was either an eyewitness who could provide helpful accounts for reporters working on a breaking news story or a prankster playing the media. She answered tonight:
“Marie’s” success included a telephone interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a bogus “Gamergate” reference in an AP story that was published online by the New York Times.
My own original version of this post raised doubts about her. But I concluded she was probably legit (but I said wouldn’t use her tweets in a breaking news story without a phone interview). We never had a phone interview (though I gave her my number), but I thought my analysis of her media interactions fit well in the context of a blog that addresses media issues. Despite some passages that are now embarrassing, I think most of it holds up as valid analysis. I hope it improved after the liar started boasting about the hoax.
Let’s be clear about several things here:
- You can call it a prank, “Marie,” but it’s also a lie. That may make you smarter than some journalists, but you’re still a liar.
- Exploiting a tragedy for fun and laughs is lower on the scale of humanity than whatever you think media do in seeking to interview witnesses to tragedies. Enjoy your end zone dance, but I think you should attend the funerals of each of the San Bernardino victims whose deaths gave you such glee.
- “Marie” didn’t expose “the media.” She exposed a few media outlets (albeit some big ones; more on them later). As far as I can tell, most journalists who contacted “Marie” didn’t use her story. Some told me privately that they were skeptical. I will be asking them if I can use their time-stamped expressions of skepticism, all before her victory tweet.
Another important point here is that this may not be a one-woman (if “Marie” is, in fact, a woman) hoax. Shortly before she started her end-zone dance on Twitter, I had a direct-message exchange with a possible co-conspirator (unless this is another lie) who had posed as a CNN reporter early in her exchanges with the media. Some other fakes (detailed below in the original post along with the fake-CNN reporter) might also be co-conspirators.
Here are my DMs to and from “Paul Town,” the fake CNN reporter:
For what it’s worth, I don’t think you fight for ethics in journalism, by lying, so that’s just another lie. I did note Marie’s tie to Gamergate, a running controversy over sexual harassment and conflict in video game development, in the original post.
Some journalists were skeptical from the first
Andrew Seaman of Reuters first called Marie to my attention by direct message Wednesday night, noting this tweet from Brian Ries of Mashable:
He elaborated in direct messages Wednesday night after my initial post, which focused more on the San Bernardino Sun’s breaking-news coverage, but reported his doubts:
Later in the original post, you’ll see several journalists who tweeted at Marie, asking for interviews. In most cases, I can’t see any indication that the journalists used anything from Marie, so I think skepticism was widespread, though obviously not universal.
Reported.ly, which specializes in real-time reporting from social media, and produced a social-media timeline of the San Bernardino shooting considered and rejected Marie’s tweet. Reported.ly chief Andy Carvin explained the decision to me in a Facebook message (I add the last names and Twitter profile links of the journalists he referred to by first name):
I just took a look at our chat log; we discussed the tweet in Slack. Kim Bui found it, then noted she hadn’t used it. I suggested we take a close look at the timestamp to see what if anything we could glean from it. Malachy Browne urged caution and noted it was the first time the user had ever mentioned San Bernardino. So we moved on and left her on the cutting room floor.
Monday update: Browne elaborated on Twitter:
Gadi Schwartz of NBC LA reached out to Marie (you’ll see his tweet below), but told me later by DM that the timeline “seemed fishy so i quickly moved on.”
Scott Schwebke of the Orange County Register asked Marie to contact him, but eventually decided not to use anything from her:
Shortly before Marie began gloating about her lie, Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, expressed strong skepticism in a Twitter DM:
Who fell for the story?
While lots of journalists backed away, Marie did successfully troll some of the biggest names in the media, using the names “Marie Christmas,” “Marie Port” and “Marie A. Parker” in various media reports:
On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, the host interviewed “Marie Port” by telephone Wednesday night. I have asked CNN spokeswoman Erica Puntel for an explanation of how Cooper and/or his producers vetted Marie before putting her on the air, and will update if I hear from her.
I can’t find a clip of just that segment from Wednesday night on Cooper’s show site and don’t plan to watch the whole episode to catch that interview on an official CNN video. (I suspect CNN will ask YouTube to take the clip below down, so I’ll embed the video, followed by a screengrab):
Marie and her friends commented on Twitter about the interview. I used those tweets in the original post and left them in place if you care to read that far.
When a liar suckers the AP, that means potentially 1,400 newspaper members and thousands of broadcast members might have used the story.
Here’s an archived version of the AP story of “Stories of those who survived mass shooting in California,” which included this sneaky reference to Gamergate:
The woman said he had a strange emblem on his shirt with the letters GG on it.
Friday morning update: AP Vice President and Director of Media Relations emailed me this bulletin, saying it was sent to members about 8 p.m. Thursday:
The current AP story has a correction at the end:
This story has been corrected to eliminate the testimony from Marie A. Parker. That person has publicly retracted the statements.
I would prefer a stronger description than “retracted.” That person (whose name most certainly isn’t Marie A. Parker) is gloating about pulling a hoax on the AP. The correction should note that AP fell for a lie and quoted someone fictitious.
And in that spirit, I should note that Marie gloated about me, too:
New York Times
While most AP members probably didn’t use the story (that’s true of most AP stories; every member selects a minority from a huge budget of news coverage), the New York Times did, and that prompted gloating from Marie and her friends/followers:
I understand the Times story occurs as an automatic feed from AP with no Times handling. The Times story did not carry the correction when I updated this story late Thursday, but it carries the AP correction Friday morning.
Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett emailed me:
As far as I can tell, that story was part of the automated feed of AP (and Reuters) stories that readers can access through nytimes.com. Those stories are not selected or edited by Times editors. Corrections to them, when needed, are handled by the AP.
The Times did write its own story on a hoax involving a possible suspect’s name, but I’m not going into that here.
International Business Times
The International Business Times, quoted “Marie Christmas,” saying she lived in “La Puerta, Calif.” The story didn’t say whether they communicated by phone or Twitter DM. I can’t find any tweets between them. Google Maps shows a couple California businesses in the San Diego area named La Puerta, but not a community by that name. La Puente, Calif., is about 50 miles west of San Bernardino. I’ve asked IB Times contacts for explanation and will update if they respond. At 11:30 p.m. Central time Thursday, the story was not corrected.
New York TV reporter Jay Dow of WPIX-TV made the best media mea culpa:
What’s left of my original post
Pieces of the original post have been moved up and updated. I don’t unpublish without a good reason, and embarrassment isn’t a good enough one. So here’s what’s left of what I posted Thursday evening shortly before Marie started boasting about the hoax. I will note some updates and add comments on where I am pleased or disappointed with what I originally wrote. But it’s all here, unless I moved it up and updated:
Eyewitnesses who tweet about horrible news events can be important, willing and helpful sources for journalists covering breaking news.
All journalism ethics codes stress accuracy and verification. Coverage of breaking news has always tested journalists’ ability to verify information in a hurry. The 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, well into the digital age, but at the birth of the social media age we’re experiencing now, resulted in inaccurate front-page banner headlines and late-night broadcasts trumpeting the “miracle rescue” of 12 trapped coal miners. It later turned out that only one miner had survived. The mistaken source in that story was then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.
Unfolding breaking stories today often call on journalists to vet lesser-known sources, such as “Marie Christmas,” whose tweets above offered journalists a chance to connect with an actual eyewitness, while awaiting those official reports (which, as the Manchin case reminds us, can be mistaken).
Breaking news stories have always required journalists to try to connect with eyewitnesses, some of whom want to talk to us and some of whom don’t. Asking them for interviews can be difficult, and sometimes a single witness will attract a media horde. Crude bunch that we can be, journalists (and our sources, too, I suppose) sometimes call this horde a clusterfuck. Which might be a good time to warn you that I’m not cleaning up language for this post. The rest of the F-bombs won’t be coming from me, but mostly references to journalists in the media horde.
When journalists try to verify that people actually witnessed events they have tweeted about, we can be annoying, even insulting. Verification — and media inquiries in general — can be an uncomfortable. Even when we’re doing good journalism we can be intrusive and we have to be skeptical.
Before I was able to ask “Marie Christmas” about what she saw and experienced Wednesday, I mentioned her (though not by @JewyMarie username or the obviously fictitious name on her Twitter account) in a post yesterday about breaking news coverage. (If you don’t want to read or reread the full post, just search “eyewitness” at the link above and you’ll find the section where I mentioned her tweets and why Brian Ries of Mashable raised questions about whether she was an actual witness.) I believe Ries’ concerns were valid and thoughtful, but I won’t elaborate on them again here.
Update: Yeah, this paragraph is embarrassing: After closer examination, I believe “Marie” (she used the last name Port in a CNN interview) actually was an eyewitness, even though I’m not sure we know her true name. I saw the red flags that prompted Ries’ concerns. But I saw many reasons to believe she was a true eyewitness. She had interactions before, during and after the incident that convince me strongly of her legitimacy. This will be a long post, with about 50 screenshots of tweets among Marie and friends, strangers and journalists. Some of the tweets will repeat ground I covered yesterday, but with screenshots this time, rather than just quotes.
I didn’t use screenshots last night because Marie had taken her Twitter account private. I asked to follow her (you can’t read tweets from a private account unless the user accepts you as a follower). She accepted my request and after our discussion by direct message, I have decided to use screenshots of tweets from, to and about her. She has decided to speak publicly about her experience yesterday, and I think her direct messages and Twitter exchanges illustrate some points about breaking news coverage and verification, as well as about the toll journalism can take on sources and how some of the public views our work.
Interspersed with the screenshots will be my comments. I won’t use screenshots that address some personal matters Marie tweeted about before her moment of fame, but those tweets contributed to my belief that she’s legitimate. We’ll start with my direct-message exchange with her:
I normally wouldn’t ask someone that bluntly about verification and whether she was actually there. A phone call would have allowed more gradual and polite vetting, some basic questions about who she was, etc. But since we were communicating by Twitter, I got to the point more directly. I also had already given her a link in which I discussed reasons for skepticism about her specifically. So I got to the point. I think you can detect irritation in the messages below, and I understand and respect that response. If we have more exchanges, I will add them to this post.
She has not DM’d me since, which I understand, but since she had answered questions and had done an earlier interview, I decided to grab screenshots and use her Twitter exchanges.
Clearly, she was right about her birthday. Before her birthday lunch, she got lots of greetings from Twitter friends:
The birthday greetings don’t verify that Marie witnessed the shooting. But they do identify that the person who tweeted about the shooting is a real person with real friends who knew it was her birthday and acted friendly toward her. All of that could describe a prankster. But I’d be more suspicious of someone with a fairly inactive previous Twitter history. Marie is active and lively on Twitter. This looks like someone who would tweet if she saw something terrifying unfold on her birthday.
Plus, the tweets identify lots of friends you could contact for verification. Some might connect you with Marie directly. Some might have been at the birthday gathering and shot their own photos of it. I didn’t try to contact the friends, but would have if I were covering a breaking story. I did check their timelines and didn’t find anyone who had been at the birthday gathering, but also didn’t see anything suspicious. They appeared to share interests and personality traits. One tweeted about hearing Marie on CNN that evening. Update: Trying to contact the friends directly would have certainly raised suspicions.
Of course, that could be amazement about a friend being on CNN to discuss what she witnessed. Or it could be amazement that a friend pulled off a con. More on the CNN interview later.
As I noted yesterday, Ries saw concerns in Marie’s timeline: (Update: I used this screengrab up higher, but decided to leave it in its original place, too.)
Sarcasm is a frequent tone in Marie’s timeline, and nothing I could see before Wednesday indicated any connection to San Bernardino (as Ries noted in a direct message). And I saw tweets about pranks, though they seemed to be appreciation for pranks by others, not a pattern of playing pranks herself. I saw valid reasons to wonder about the authenticity of Wednesday’s claim. But I have no doubt this is an authentic person’s oft-used Twitter account, even if the name is fictional. Frequent interests of Marie are Anime, video games and the Gamergate sexual-cyberharasssment controversy (in which Roguestar is a figure):
Marie Christmas, media star
I have taught thousands of journalists in recent years to use Twitter to connect with eyewitnesses to breaking news events. My first blog post on the topic was six years ago this month, noting how slow media organizations were in catching up with a survivor who tweeted immediately and extensively about a Denver plane crash. I have used that example in dozens of workshops, seminars and classes.
Back then, watching carefully on Twitter was a certain path to a scoop. Update: In teaching verification techniques, I noted that the survivor’s username, @2drinksbehind, should be a red flag, as Marie’s obviously bogus name was. But his timeline provided more help in verifying his authenticity.
Well, today someone who tweets from the scene of a breaking story gets plenty of media attention, more than I noted in yesterday’s post. Marie received multiple inquiries from some news organizations (it’s not uncommon to have lots of journalists working a story this big and duplication is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent).
I am messaging the journalists cited here in a variety of ways, before and after I post, and will update if they respond.
New York’s Gray Lady and tabloid Daily News both wanted to talk to Marie:
More shortly on John Fairfield and others who objected to journalists seeking interviews with Marie.
This next inquiry came from the Chicago Tribune. Of course journalists should emphasize safety over media contact, as Scott Kleinberg did here:
Update (after initial publication but before the hoax-boasting started): Kleinberg, social media editor for the Chicago Tribune, send this detailed explanation of his Twitter approach to possible eyewitnesses (before the hoax was revealed):
First and foremost, I’m a stickler for accuracy. My tweets about this situation were careful … using official accounts, etc.
Maybe you noticed that I sent an angry tweet with all caps to the general world telling them not to tweet verbatim from the scanner. Ever since Boston it’s been a thing and it drives me mad.
With , I had a few thoughts at the time. Remember … I’ve been live tweeting in one form or another since 2008-2009 so I’ve learned a thing or 100 along the way. First thing: Never tweet and provide email addresses or phone numbers. That makes you look desperate and I bet it’s what attracted those naysayers.
They say be careful and launch into the contact thing so it seems disingenuous. I was careful to put safety first and let her know that we’d love to talk to her but I didn’t want to put any specifics out there yet.
Right or wrong or helpful, those other journalists don’t realize how much perception matters. So for me I immediately thought of telling her to stay safe … I do that when I ask people to tweet weather photos so I’m all about safety.
I figured that if she responded, then I’d go into the deep verifying and ask her a whole bunch of questions. In the meantime I was looking at her feed and trying to get a sense for who she was. I instantly thought she was young and in high school based on the subject matter, the lack of capital letters and next to zero punctuation. I’d guess a senior in high school as some of the friends wishing her happy birthday had 15 in their Twitter handles, which I believe is their graduating year.
At that moment I just wanted to make the connection. And I wasn’t looking per se to talk to an eyewitness, but I just happened to catch hers and the tone resonated where I wanted to reach out. The people who put in phone numbers and act desperate often send the same tweet to multiple people and that adds to the desperation even more.
Kleinberg did not get a response from Marie, but I like his thoughtful approach. I’m not opposed to tweeting a phone number, but I think he makes a valid point. I know many journalists who’ve gotten great interviews (and been able to vet sources effectively) that way. But perhaps that was more effective before today’s Twitter media horde.
Update: After being informed of the hoax, Kleinberg added:
MSNBC invited a phone call. You can vet a source better and more politely over the phones. Phone numbers may be a your-mileage-might-vary situation:
This next inquiry is from the Daily Beast. (I recommend that journalists reaching out to news eyewitnesses identify themselves in the tweets, rather than counting on the person to check your profile to learn who you are.)
Even a Russian media outlet wanted to talk to Marie:
Multiple responses here. I’m not sure why I haven’t been able to see ABC producer Ali Ehrlich‘s tweet to Marie. More shortly on some of the others, but this string shows the horde Marie was attracting.
As this next tweet indicates, Marie was not going to be easy to interview (clearly a red flag in retrospect, though some journalists, as noted above, backed away in part because of the lack of a phone). The “Buzzfeed Afghanistan” inquiry is clearly a fake, but the media inquiry at the end of this string was legitimate.
Backlash to media inquiries
John Fairfield, mentioned above, was the most consistent scold of journalists seeking interviews with Marie. But he had plenty of company:
Update: Jenna Susko of NBC LA says:
I messaged with her but did not use it.
Fake fake fake
Merry Fyrsmas, included above in a string of legitimate media inquiries, does not appear to be an actual journalist, nor is Fyrasec News, which she cited, an actual news organization (or one you can find on Google, at least). I suspect this is a friend, mocking journalists’ inquiries of Marie.
Update: @Fyrasec confirmed my conclusion:
The inquiry below appears to be a fake, too. Merry Coyote’s link in the Twitter bio is not to a political blog and I could not find such a blog. Might be a friend of Marie’s mocking all the media attention. Or just a stranger joining the clamor.
The question below appears like something an actual journalist might ask, but the inquirer doesn’t identify himself and discloses in his Twitter bio that the “Counterspin Central” blog he once authored is no longer active. Hesiod Thogony, whether a fake or real name for this Twitter user, has its roots in antiquity that I don’t care to read about.
A fake CNN reporter
Though Marie did eventually appear on CNN, this inquiry is a fake. CNN reporters and producers are pretty easy to Google and I can’t find any indication of a CNN employee by that name. Here’s the top of his Twitter page:
And the tweet pinned at the top of his timeline:
And the home page for paultown.com, the link from his Twitter bio:
Nothing there looks like a journalist. Erica Puntel from CNN PR confirmed by email my conclusion that he’s a fake. Will update if I hear from him. (If he follows me back, I’ll DM him questions. If not, I’ll tweet at him when I post this, inviting comment. The blog has no contact information that I can find.)
Update: “Town” followed me back and I’ve added our DM exchange up high. He’s the guy (if he’s male) claiming a “secret cabal” of media trolls.
Marie later exchanged tweets from an actual CNN reporter:
Update: Hanks would not discuss his interactions with Marie. In fairness it should be noted that he is a CNN digital writer/producer, and I could not find any references to “Marie” on CNN.com. Hanks does not produce for Anderson Cooper 360, the CNN show where Cooper interviewed “Marie Port” by telephone Wednesday night, as I noted earlier in the updated post.
The reaction to the Cooper interview seems to indicate friends regarded it as legit. In retrospect, some, if not all, were clearly in on the hoax:
Marie and her friends wound down the evening with light banter.
She summed the day up:
I think if she would have gotten in touch with me on deadline, I could have verified pretty quickly that Marie was a valid eyewitness and tried to use and verify her real given name. I wouldn’t have used her tweets in a breaking story without talking to her, though. Update: I’m glad I originally said that I wouldn’t use the tweets without talking to her. And, given the fact that she was lying, I’m certain I would have been able to determine that if we had ever talked on the phone.
I feel comfortable using them here because of our Twitter exchange and the context I am providing. The work I spent on this blog post was way more than you can spend on one source in most breaking news stories.
Here were my last DMs to her (I have not heard back, but will try again and update if I do).
I’ll update with responses, if any, from Marie and journalists I have messaged (and will continue messaging; sometimes sending the link to a published post brings a response).
As I’ve noted in earlier posts about identifying mass killers, I don’t like indulging attention-seekers, and these trolls clearly relish attention, even if for their fake names. So it sickens me to feed that disgusting behavior with this much attention. But journalists covering breaking news should learn from our mistakes. I made mistakes in my initial analysis of this episode, and other journalists made bigger mistakes. So I wrote this long, long updated analysis in hopes of making it harder for trolls to exploit tragedy, and journalists’ challenges in covering unfolding breaking news.
I suggest reading my social media verification tips (I may need to reread them myself, and update). I also suggest reading the Verification Handbook. In my chapter of that book, I used (and explained the history of) one of journalism’s favorite clichés: If your mother tells you she loves you check it out. And if someone with a phony-sounding name tells you anything, double-check and triple-check it out. Or move on to a more credible source.
One final point: This hoax was clearly rooted in Twitter, and social media have given liars and pranksters new tools. But media hoaxes way predate social media. Journalists have been interviewing teen-age boys named “Heywood Jablome” (say it out loud; the kids always spell it for the gullible reporters) for decades.
Friday evening postscript
If you’ve made it this far, you might find the comments from trolls below interesting. Fascinating patterns: Moral indignation about failings (some of them valid, obviously) by the media but completely clueless about how cowardly they appear hiding behind bogus names and how completely lacking they are in integrity, as they trumpet lying as a perverted tool of digital vigilantism. I responded to a few, because I respond to almost all commenters here, but I’m going to stop. I generally delete comments from trolls, because they are so clearly seeking attention and I don’t like to indulge attention-seekers. But they seem appropriate here, showing the psychology of the lying troll better than I could describe it.
Update: Of course, I spoke too soon. Right after I posted the paragraph above, a troll lied in a comment, so I deleted it. You can defend lying here, but I won’t tolerate new lies. Find somewhere else to troll. And another update: No sooner did I post that last update than the same troll posted another long diatribe with more lies. I’ve deleted his/her entire thread, including my responses. This was the most active troll in the comments, but I think enough others remain to illustrate the points I’ve made above.
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