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Misidentification: Republic of Florida Hoax

By
Brian Friedberg
Media Manipulation Tactics Used

Overview

On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and teachers. After fleeing the scene, Cruz was apprehended alive by police. Before being officially identified by law enforcement, speculation and false identifications of the shooter circulated online. During this period of confusion, a hoax targeting journalists led to a misidentification, naming Cruz as a member of a small white nationalist militia.

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 As soon as news broke, the gender and race of the shooter became a question of great interest to users of 4chan’s and 8chan’s “Politically Incorrect” (/pol/) boards. Before police dispatchers identified the suspect, some participants on these boards launched an investigation that led to the misidentification of an individual, 24-year-old Marcel Fountaine.  

Participants monitored local police scanners and caught mention of the suspect’s name long before the police made a public identification. 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 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

After a series of other misidentifications, campaign participants found two Instagram accounts attributed to Cruz, as well as a YouTube channel. One participant left a comment on Cruz’s instagram, leading him to be contacted directly for comment by an ABC News reporter. The prankster shared screenshots and details of this conversation in a /pol/ thread. Commenters in the thread encouraged the poster to mislead the reporter, but the interaction did not lead to any coverage.7 This attention by reporters to any traces of affiliation on Cruz’s social media and far right forums presented an opportunity for campaign participants to later speak directly to the media.

Although his accounts were removed by Instagram and YouTube, screenshots and archives of his content were analyzed by both reporters and /pol/ users, with both identifying his evident cruelty to animals, fascination with weapons, affinity for incel culture and possession of a MAGA hat.8 Campaign participants on /pol/ not only speculated as to his motives, but debated the description of Cruz as “white” due to his hispanic surname and appearance.9 Some /pol/ users shared an unrelated “false flag” conspiracy pushed by Alex Jones over the course of the day before official police statements.10 

The continued attention and discussion to this breaking news event and the ongoing crisis provided the opportunity for a campaign to use 4chan’s /pol/ board to stage a media hoax. 

A small group of pranksters, who were regulars of both 4chan’s /pol/ and other extremist forums, planned a manipulation campaign to misidentify Cruz as a member of a small white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida (ROF). They used Discord to coordinate, landing on the tactic of impersonating members of ROF in posts on 4chan, knowing that reporters or researchers were monitoring the site for further information. Their intention was to trick the press.11 

In later posts on white nationalist forums, campaign organizers shared screenshots from Discord as verification of their scheme.12

4chan screenshot

This is the /pol/ post claiming Cruz was connected to ROF. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

At 11:24pm, in a post on 4chan titled “Nikolas Cruz Shooting,”1 a campaign participant first claimed Cruz was connected to ROF,2 which was led by white supremacist Jordan Jereb.3 The post said the ROF was “terrifying and clearly they're willing to kill anyone. Nikolas was actually one of the less violent ones.” 

As evidenced by the conversation that ensued in the thread, this post effectively used /pol/ to seed the hoax that Cruz was part of the ROF. The original poster claimed to be a former member of the militia. Participants in the hoax claimed in posts on Gab they spent the 18 hours planning and spreading the hoax across the media.4 These individuals were able to effectively muddy the waters, seeding this disinformation about Cruz’s motivations and affiliations into a breaking news cycle.

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

Later that evening, an individual claiming to be another ABC reporter posted to the “Nikolas Cruz shooting” thread, asking to interview the original poster about his association with Cruz.1 This self-identification by the supposed reporter was met with both skepticism and derision by many posters. In the same thread, other individuals tried and failed to rekindle the misidentification of Cruz as Marcel Fontaine.2 

The next day, on February 15, several publications and groups picked up on and began investigating the anonymous claim that Cruz was a member of the ROF3 — the Anti-Defamation League among them. The ADL called a phone number prominently listed on the ROF’s now-defunct website,4 and reported that it spoke with leader Jordan Jereb. 

At 12:41 p.m. ET, the ADL tweeted out5  an article6 stating that Jereb had confirmed Cruz was part of the Republic of Florida. The Associated Press also contacted Jereb by phone, and at 12:50 p.m. published claims he made regarding Cruz training with his “paramilitary” group.7 When later reached by The Miami Herald for comment, Jereb stated, “I know with certainty he had something to do with us.”8 ABC later reported Cruz was a member of ROF, citing the AP and the ADL, and interviews with individuals who claimed to be Cruz’s classmates.9 CBS,10 The Daily Beast,11 Mother Jones, PBS,12 Think Progress,13 the neo-nazi Daily Stormer, among other publications, all ran with the story, which generated much conservation on Twitter.

STAGE 4: Mitigation

Even as the story that Cruz was tied to this white supremacist group spread, not all believed the connection, resulting in critical press and debunking. On February 15, extremism researcher JJ MacNabb immediately questioned the burst of media linking Cruz with the Republic of Florida, pointing out the story started on 4chan and that the news articles were relying on Jereb as their source.1 That same day, The Tallahassee Democrat contacted the Leon County police and reported that the authorities did not confirm a connection between Cruz and Republic of Florida.2 An SPLC investigation led to similar findings, and noted that Jereb had a history of being a “publicity seeker.” 

On the evening of February 15, in a now-defunct forum for the white nationalist podcast The Right Stuff, a poster who claimed to be involved in the group that pulled the hoax detailed how an “inside joke” against Jereb resulted in a large wave of press after Jereb corroborated the false claim.3 (Jereb had previously been a target of other trolling groups, as well.)4 

After the publicity and public skepticism, Jereb began rolling back his statements, claiming later on February 15 that the ADL had misrepresented him.5 He took to Gab to blame his false admission of association on lack of sleep.6 Jereb proceeded to respond to criticism on Gab from several other right-wing influencers and white nationalist leaders who condemned his stunt as counterproductive, and criticized the negative media exposure this campaign resulted in.

On February 16, the AP issued a follow-up article stating that Jereb had apparently lied to its reporter and other outlets had stopped responding to requests for comment.7 Most publications that reported on Cruz’s connection to ROF issued corrections on their articles to account for this information.8 Also on February 16, Politico published an exposé into the media manipulation campaign, detailing the cross-site coordination used to orchestrate the hoax.9 On February 17, The New Yorker, in an interview with Heidi Beirich of the SPLC, revealed that Jereb had a long history of attention-seeking behavior, and said that in 2014 Jereb had emailed a complaint to the watchdog group complaining that the Republic of Florida was not listed as a hate group on its site.10 

Debunking of these initial claims continued over the next few days. The Washington Examiner issued a fact check on February 18.11 On February 19, Fox News published an article detailing how the claim spread in many publications.12 On February 20, Snopes issued a fact check on the hoax.13 

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

After the hoax was debunked by civil society organizations like the SPLC, refuted by police, corrected in the media, and acknowledged as false by Jereb, the campaign concluded. Campaign participants on /pol/ celebrated a victory with no further adaptation

For those involved in the campaign, the hoax was considered a victory against the mass media and the watchdog organizations tasked with tracking far-right movements online.1 Campaign participants constructed evidence collages, compiling screenshots of communications with journalists, /pol/ screenshots and subsequent false press.2 “This was really dumb but let's not freak out too hard over it. Let's just make fun of the media for jumping on an obvious hoax just because it was what they wanted to hear,” wrote neo nazi hacker weev in the Daily Stormer forum.3 

Jereb spent the next several days arguing with white nationalist influencers on Gab, many of whom were critical of his behavior. On March 21, his home was raided by the FBI seeking evidence in the case, and he was arrested for a probation violation and was subject to subsequent legal proceedings.4 Jereb’s actions were the subject of several jokes among the far right in 2019 and 2020.5

4chan screenshot

This is a /pol/ evidence collage documenting the media impact of the hoax. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC

Cite this case study

Brian Friedberg, "Misidentification: Republic of Florida Hoax," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 19, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/misidentification-republic-florida-hoax.