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Black boot stomping on a puddle of red liquid

Evidence Collage: Unite the Right Rally

By
Brian Friedberg and Joan Donovan
Media Manipulation Tactics Used

Overview

In the aftermath of the deadly car attack during the Unite the Right Rally of August, 2017, a misidentification of the driver, and subsequent doxing of an unrelated individual, muddied the waters before the actual suspect was apprehended and identified by police. By seeding social media with erroneous evidence collages, an innocent individual was subject to doxing and targeted harassment by far-right extremist operators organized on 4chan and 8chan.

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

The Unite the Right Rally on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia was the largest gathering of white supremacists in modern United States history. At 1:45pm, a gray 2010 Dodge Challenger drove into a group of counter-protestors, injuring several and killing Heather Heyer. After the fatal impact, the car reversed and fled the scene.1 The car attack was captured on video by several individuals live-streaming the rally, though the driver was not visible in any of these videos. 

As this breaking news event captured national attention, many online turned to investigating the identity of the driver. During this active crisis period, between the time of the attack and the eventual identification and arrest of the driver later that evening, a campaign formed on 4chan and 8chan, amplified by right-wing influencers, leading to the misidentification, doxing and subsequent harassment of an individual who had nothing to do with the rally.

From the moment of the car attack, campaign participants gathered evidence in multiple threads on the /pol/ boards of 4chan and 8chan. At 3:07pm, a campaign participant shared a high-resolution photo of the Dodge Challenger in which the license plate was clearly visible.2 Campaign participants were instructed to use public directories such as Carfax and Search Quarry to search for more information based on that plate and the car’s make and model.3 A screenshot of a Search Quarry query was posted, identifying a “Jerome P Vangheluwe” as the car’s owner.4 Another participant subsequently posted a screenshot of Jerome P Vangheluwe’s LinkedIn profile,5 followed by a screenshot of identifying information on the people search engine Pipl.6 Campaign participants began compiling an evidence collage, taking these screenshots and merging them into a single png file designed to be persuasive and shareable.7 As Vangheluwe lived in Michigan and was much older than the suspected drive, a 4chan user suggested that his son Joel, identified using public directories, could be the suspect instead.8 Using Joel’s name as a search term, his Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages were located. A campaign participant found and screenshotted an image of a gray Dodge Challenger Joel had posted on Facebook.9 

As Joel was now a person of interest due to his Facebook, his motivations were the next topic of interest for participants. As research into Joel’s social media revealed he had leftist sympathies,10 and was thus branded as “antifa,” a participant started a dedicated thread entitled “CHARLOTTESVILLE RAM WAS A COMMIE.” Within this thread, a campaign participant combined these screenshots with a previous evidence collage naming Joel as the driver, instructing others to “spread this far and wide!”11 These documents from 4chan were cross-posted on 8chan, solidifying the evidence amongst pseudonymous participants before seeding on social media.

This is a screenshot of a /pol/ thread encouraging investigation of the car attack. Credit: Screenshot by TaSc.

This is a screenshot of a /pol/ thread encouraging investigation of the car attack. Credit: Screenshot by TaSc.

Evidence collage shared on 4chan attempting to identify the owner of the car.

This is an evidence collage shared on 4chan /pol/ naming Jerome Vangheluwe as the car attacker. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

Evidence collages workshopped on the chans were then seeded on Reddit, particularly the r/conspiracy and r/the_donald subreddits.1 Many participants on Twitter shared screenshots of original research from public directories, social media evidence collages, and even 4chan threads naming Joel as the driver.2 Attention generated via strategic Reddit posts by campaign participants resulted in further sharing of these images, particularly the complete evidence collage generated on 4chan. Claims that Joel was both the driver and a member of “antifa” helped muddy the waters through the late afternoon of August 12 before officials made any statements about the real driver’s identity.

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

This led to media exposure. Right-wing influencers and press shared this evidence collage and the claim that the driver was affiliated with leftist organizing or “antifa” throughout the day on August 12. The Gateway Pundit published a report, “Driver in Virginia Car Attack Was Anti-Trump Protester – Joel Vangheluwe,“ using a post from a small Twitter account as the source.1 GotNews published an article in the same time period with the headline “BREAKING: #Charlottesville Car Terrorist Is Anti-Trump, Open Borders Druggie."2 The narrative and images gathered by campaign participants on 4chan and 8chan also appeared on right-wing media sites FreeRepublic, Zerohedge, and Puppet String News. These were also posted in the replies of many “breaking news” tweets from mainstream media outlets, amplifying the misidentification.3 The claim, and subsequent articles by right-wing press, were shared by noteable influencers and conspiracists, including Ian Miles Cheong, Gavin McInness, Jack Posobiec, and Paul Nehlan.4 Mainstream news outlets did not address these claims as they emerged in the right. Joel Vangheluwe used his Facebook page to directly dispute the misidentification as he and his family were subjected to waves of harassment by campaign participants.5

STAGE 4: Mitigation

On the evening of August 12, GotNews issued a statement that read, “Because police have not identified the suspect, GotNews has retracted the article. GotNews regrets the error and apologizes to Joel [V.] and his family.”1 The Gateway Pundit deleted its article without issuing a correction. While the campaign that misidentified Joel Vangheluwe flourished online among right-wing activists and media outlets, a manhunt by Virginia police resulted in the arrest of James Fields Jr. that very night, August 12.2 As mainstream media outlets correctly identified Fields as the suspect over the next two days, campaign participation decreased.3 However, on August 14, two days after Fields Jr. was identified and arrested, President Trump retweeted right-wing pundit Jack Posobiec’s sharing of the GotNews misidentification of the attacker.4 This new attention to the misidentification generated by President Trump’s retweet led fact-checking services like Snopes and Politifact to publish articles debunking these claims.5

Once the actual driver was identified and apprehended, and fact checks correcting the misidentification circulated, the inaccurate information lost traction on social media. False claims by smaller accounts remain online, and no official actions by platform companies were taken to remove the misidentification at scale. The consequences for Joel and his family were high: they had to flee their home and hide for several days. The family subsequently took legal action, suing The Gateway Pundit, GotNews and other publications and influencers for defamation, emotional distress and invasion of privacy, eventually settling out of court.6 In 2019, Fields Jr. pleaded guilty to 29 federal charges, and was sentenced to life in prison.7

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

No significant redeployment of the misinfographic or adjustment of claims was made after the identification and arrest of the real perpetrator. 

Cite this case study

Brian Friedberg and Joan Donovan, "Evidence Collage: Unite the Right Rally," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 26, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/evidence-collage-unite-right-rally.