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Misidentification: Parkland Shooter

By
Brian Friedberg

Overview

During the active crisis of the Parkland school shooting in February 2018, a photo misidentifying the alleged perpetrator moved from 4chan to the mainstream media when Infowars picked up the image, muddying the waters around the actual shooting. The misidentification led to targeted harassment of the individual in the photograph, who was not associated with the shooting.

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz began his attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at 2:19 p.m. (ET). The first 911 call was placed at 2:22 p.m. Officers were dispatched to the school, and the shooter was identified as a “white male” by police dispatch at 2:28 p.m.1 News of a shooting broke online and many flocked to social media for information on the breaking news. The gender and race of the shooter was of great interest to many, specifically to far right extremists aggregating information in various forums and websites, specifically 4chan and 8chan’s “Politically Incorrect” boards (/pol/). There were many threads discussing the shooting on the /pol/s throughout the day.  It was on these boards that a small group of anonymous operators seeded a campaign misidentifying an unrelated individual as the suspected shooter.

Participants on the /pol/s monitored local police scanners and caught mention of the suspect’s name. The first identification on 4chan /pol/ was at 3:13 p.m., in a post stating “SCANNER SAYS “white male” is Nicholas Cruz,”2 around the same time that the name was first shared on Twitter by other individuals monitoring the situation.3 The first correct spelling of the shooter's name on 4chan came at 3:22 p.m., included in a post with a picture identified as being Cruz as an infant with his adopted mother.4 At 3:29 p.m., the first post on 8chan /pol/ identifying Cruz was made, with instructions to “archive his social media.”5 Cruz was arrested at 3:41 p.m., and officially identified by police at 6pm.6

At 4:43 p.m., in a thread entitled "Active Shooter: High School (Thread #3),”7 an anonymous user in 4chan /pol/ posted the image of an unrelated individual, 24-year-old Marcel Fontaine, a young man who barely matched Cruz’s image. Fontaine’s social media accounts had been posted to /pol/ a few days before the Parkland shooting, and the image appeared to have been taken from there. No comment accompanied the image. The same image was posted again several times in /pol/, including at 5:43 p.m. in a dedicated thread titled “shooter is a commie,” which received no interactions.8

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

At 5:37 p.m., a fake antifa Twitter account named @LagBeachAntifa7 tweeted Fontaine’s photo, accompanied by the text, “Please dont RT this picture of #NicholasCruz wearing an Antifa shirt. We dont need anymore bad press.”9 The @LagBeachAntfia7 account was part of a network of fake antifa Twitter accounts that had been created in 2017 and continued to flourish, operated by right-wing pranksters seeking to discredit the antifascist activist group. This tweet seeded the misidentified image to other fake antifa accounts, which shared and popularized the misidentification on Twitter. 

For the next several hours, @LagBeachAntifa7’s tweet received significant interactions, and Fontaine’s images were shared in multiple threads on 4chan and 8chan, including the QAnon board qresearch.10 An individual or small group of individuals spread screenshots of the tweet many times throughout the course of the evening on /pol/. Several threads promoting the @LagBeachAntifa tweet or other pictures of Fontaine attempted to link “shooter” with “commie”11 or “antifa.”12

On the evening of February 14, conspiracy outlet Infowars fell for the misidentification. It published an article from author Kit Daniels, entitled, “REPORTED FLORIDA SHOOTER DRESSED AS COMMUNIST, SUPPORTED ISIS,”  in which Daniels included a screenshot of the 5:43pm /pol/ thread with Fontaine’s photo identified as the shooter,13 writing that the “alleged photo of the suspect shows communist garb.” Though that thread had no engagements, it had been reposted in an active thread disseminating information about the shooter.14 Daniels later admitted he took the anonymously posted photo from 4chan to use in his story.15 According to The New York Times, Fontaine’s photo was embedded in the article for at least five hours before being removed, giving the misidentification media exposure.16

Similar posts of the image appeared on political Facebook accounts (“THIS PHOTO TELLS YOU ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE SHOOTER”),17 blogs (“Florida School Shooter is Latino Communist Antifa Supporter”),18 Reddit (“Leftist Confirmed: Photo of Florida Shooter in Commie T-Shirt Giving Black Power Hand Sign”),19 and additional 4chan boards (“Florida Shooter Confirmed ANTIFA!!!”).20 Various tweets misidentifying Fontaine’s as the offender were posted that evening, as well.21  

At 11:31 p.m., the man in the photo was identified on 4chan /pol/  as being Fontaine. The anonymous user wrote, “Everyone is getting memed on so hard. That's not the shooter. That's an Ancap turned Ancomm named Marcel Fontaine.”22  The user pointed out that Fontaine’s picture had appeared in threads mocking leftists on social media on February 10 and February 12. Others wrote, “that’s not him…”23 and, “This guy clearly isn't the shooter.”24

Some campaign participants in the thread attempted to justify the claim that the image was of Cruz, but most rejected it25 since clear shots of Cruz’s face were now readily available online.26  

Late that night, an activist on the conservative discussion board “Ron Paul Forums” commented, “This is Marcel Fontaine. Former Ron Pauler, turned full-blown Anarcho-Capitalist ,turned batshirt Bernie Bot, turned full-on Lennist-Trotskyite "North Korea is Real Korea" Communist. This is not Nikolas Cruz. This is not a picture of the shooter. Infowars has been notified of this fact ad-nauseam and they still have it up.”27

These are multiple /pol/ posts sharing a tweet claiming the shooter was “antifa.” Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

These are multiple /pol/ posts sharing a tweet claiming the shooter was “antifa.” Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

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

A number of right-wing sites republished the Infowars misidentification verbatim, broadening the distribution of the accusation.1 Former Fox News contributor Kevin Jackson tweeted, “So #ValentinesDay MASSACRE KILLER tied to #Antifa,” linking to his blog and the image.2 The Geller Report used the image and claimed that the shooter was connected to antifa.3

On February 18, Larry Pittman, a Republican state legislator in North Carolina, amplified the misidentification when he shared comments on Facebook about Fontaine and the red shirt he wore in the photo, writing, "So many of these shooters turn out to be communist democrats, that I suspect they are doing these things to push for gun control so they can more easily take over the country.”4

As a direct result of the misidentification, Fontaine incurred a wave of targeted harassment and abuse online and was sent violent threats, including a threat that referenced his place of employment.5 He later testified that he had incurred a “high degree of mental pain and distress as a result of the incident.”6

This is the uncorrected Infowars article using the misidentified photo from /pol/. Credit: Screenshot by TaSc.

This is the uncorrected Infowars article using the misidentified photo from /pol/. Credit: Screenshot by TaSc.

STAGE 4: Mitigation 

Antifacist activists were quick to call out @LagBeachAntifa7, the disingenuous Twitter account that first shared the misidentification on social media, leading to the image going viral, and to condemn right-wing online circles for believing it.1

After users reported it, Twitter locked @LagBeachAntifa7 on February 15, and suspended the account by February 20 (after which the operators adapted to the platform’s suspension by creating a new account for other purposes).2  

Critical press and debunking happened in real time and forensically. On February 14, Buzzfeed News, in an article detailing Parkland misinformation that had spread, debunked the claim and wrote, “A fake ‘antifa’ account is also spreading a hoax about the suspect wearing an antifa T-shirt. However, the person in the picture, which has gone viral, is a 24-year-old named Marcel Fontaine, not the suspect.”3 Snopes issued a fact check February 15.4

On February 26, Fontaine asked Infowars to issue a correction but it did not respond to him.5 However, Infowars later issued a “retraction, clarification, and correction” that appeared at the top of the story, stating that it had incorrectly attributed Fontaine's photo to the Parkland suspect but had taken the photo down “several days before” Fontaine contacted them.6 The Geller Report issued a retraction as well, writing, “This post originally featured a photograph of a young man who was not involved in the shooting in any manner. The Geller Report regrets the error.”7

On April 2, 2018, Fontaine filed a $1 million defamation lawsuit against Jones and Infowars, citing a “a wave of harassment and abuse online” that resulted in the blatant misidentification and his doxing.8 On October 29, 2019, an appeals court in Texas refused to dismiss the suit, allowing it to proceed.9

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

After the claim against Fontaine was widely debunked by social media users and media outlets, its popularity rapidly diminished, though it lingered on social media and 4chan for several days.10 Despite mitigation efforts, references to Fontaine can still be found in a select number of tweets11 and Reddit posts.12 As late as March 2018, participants kept sharing @LagBBeachAntifa7’s tweet on /pol/, though the continued misidentification was by then ineffective.13

Cite this case study

Brian Friedberg, "Misidentification: Parkland Shooter," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 20, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/misidentification-parkland-shooter.