Misidentification: Republic of Florida Hoax
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
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
- 1Nicole Chavez and Steve Almasy, “What Happened, Moment by Moment, in the Florida School Massacre,” CNN, March 8, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/15/us/florida-school-shooting-timeline/index.html.
- 2Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #1604660352,” 4chan, February 14, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, https://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160460325/#160461923.
- 3Robert Klitz (@Klitz), “Police Scanner Seems to Have No Idea Where the Shooter Is. About to Shut down Wal Mart. Already One Victim in Critical Condition. Nicholas Cruz Is the Name Getting Thrown around as Shooter. White Male,” Twitter, February 14, 2018, https://twitter.com/Klitz_/status/963869494069354497.
- 4 Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160463096” 4chan, February 14, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, http://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160460325/#160463096.
- 5Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #11263280” 8chan, February 14, 2018, accessed via archive.is, http://archive.is/dsvsn.
- 6Chavez and Almasy, “What Happened, Moment by Moment, in the Florida School Massacre.”
- 7Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160482708” 4chan, February 14, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, http://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160482708/.
- 8Shawn Musgrave, “How White Nationalists Fooled the Media about Florida Shooter,” Politico, February 16, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/16/florida-shooting-white-nationalists-415672.
- 9Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160470773” 4chan, February 14, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, https://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160470773/#160483725.
- 10Daniel Arkin and Ben Popken, “How the Internet’s Conspiracy Theorists Turned Parkland Students into ’crisis Actors,” NBC News, February 21, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/how-internet-s-conspiracy-theorists-turned-parkland-students-crisis-actors-n849921.
- 11Musgrave, “How White Nationalists Fooled the Media about Florida Shooter.”
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 about Cruz’s motivations and affiliations into a breaking news cycle.
- 1Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160524925” 4chan, February 14, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, https://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160524925/.
- 2Keegan Hankes, “Stars Behind Bars: League of the South Joins Republic of Florida Militia for FSU Protest,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 22, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/04/21/stars-behind-bars-league-south-joins-republic-florida-militia-fsu-protest.
- 3“Jordan Jereb, Local Leader for the ROF,” Tallahassee Democrat, August 20, 2017, https://www.tallahassee.com/videos/news/2017/08/20/jordan-jereb-local-leader-rof/104750672/.
- 4Musgrave, “How White Nationalists Fooled the Media about Florida Shooter.”
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.
- 1Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160530342” 4chan, February 15, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, http://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160524925/#160530342.
- 2Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160532903” 4chan, February 15, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, https://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160524925/#q160532903.
- 3“Florida White Supremacist Group Admits Ties to Alleged Parkland School Shooter Nikolas Cruz,” Anti-Defamation League, February 15, 2018, accessed via archive.is, https://archive.is/V0EDa#selection-2921.0-2921.91.
- 4“About Us,” Republic of Florida, February 15, 2018, accessed via web.archive.org, https://web.archive.org/web/20180215191314/http://republicofflorida.com/
- 5ADL (@ADL), “BREAKING: Nikolas Cruz, Alleged Perpetrator in the Deadly School Shooting in Parkland, Florida, Was Associated with White Supremacist Group Republic of Florida & Participated in the Group’s Training Exercises, According to the Group’s Leader,” Twitter, February 15, 2018, https://twitter.com/ADL/status/964192987948507136.
- 6Anti-Defamation League, “Florida White Supremacist Group Admits Ties to Alleged Parkland School Shooter Nikolas Cruz.”
- 7“The Latest: Hundreds at Vigil Mourn School Shooting Victims,” The Associated Press, February 16, 2018, accessed via archive.is, https://archive.is/J0v0q#selection-809.0-809.59; The Associated Press (@AP), “BREAKING: Leader of White Nationalist Group Has Confirmed Suspect in Florida School Shooting Was Member of His Organization.” Twitter, February 15, 2018, https://twitter.com/AP/status/964195101621870594.
- 8Alex Harris, “White Nationalist Militia That Claimed School Suspect as Member Now Backs Down,” Miami Herald, February 15, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200291329.html.
- 9“Florida School Shooting Suspect Was a White Nationalist, Leader of Group Confirms,” ABC News, February 15, 2018, accessed via web.archive.org, https://web.archive.org/web/20180215205209/http://abc13.com/group-school-shooting-suspect-was-a-white-nationalist/3084859/.
- 10“Florida School Shooting Suspect Is a White Nationalist, Group Leader Says,” CBS News, February 15, 2018, accessed via web.archive.org, https://web.archive.org/web/20180215194427/https://www.cbsnews.com/news/florida-school-shooting-suspect-nikolas-cruz-white-nationalist-republic-of-florida/.
- 11Kelly Weill, Justin Miller and Taylor Lorenz, “Nikolas Cruz Trained With White Supremacists, Group Claims,” The Daily Beast, February 15, 2018, accessed via archive.is, http://archive.is/d6w7b.
- 12“Leader of White Nationalist Group Says Florida Shooting Suspect Was a Member,” PBS News, February 15, 2018, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/leader-of-white-nationalist-groups-says-florida-shooting-suspect-was-a-member.
- 13Judd Legum and Luke Barnes, “Florida White Supremacist Group Says Parkland Shooting Suspect Is a Member,” ThinkProgress, February 15, 2018, accessed via web.archive.org, https://web.archive.org/web/20180215183408/https://thinkprogress.org/parkland-shooting-white-supremacist-group-f8456fe2851b/.
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
- 1JJ MacNab (@jjmacnab), “The Story of the Link between the White Supremacist Militia and the Shooter Started on 4Chan. From the ADL Piece That Broke the News.” Twitter, February 15, 2018, https://twitter.com/jjmacnab/status/964230000957259776.
- 2Karl Etters, “Local Law Enforcement: No Ties between Militia and Florida High School Shooter,” Tallahassee Democrat, February 15, 2018, https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2018/02/15/florida-school-shooting-suspect-nikolas-cruz-member-white-nationalist-militia-tallahassee-leader-say/341751002/.
- 3Jordan Fash, “Florida Shooter Wasn’t a Member of Republic of Florida. It Was a Prank a Dischord Chat Played,” The Right Stuff 504um, February 15, 2018, accessed via https://archive.is/3fMvE.
- 4Stephen Micek, “Jordan Jereb / Wriggle / ROF Militia - Florida Seccesionist and Complete Fuckup,” Kiwi Farms, January 24, 2018, https://kiwifarms.net/threads/jordan-jereb-wriggle-rof-militia.38779/?
- 5Jordan Jereb (@JordanJereb), “Typical Lying Jews from the ADL Misrepresenting the Situation. Sad.” Gab, February 15, 2018, https://gab.com/JordanJereb/posts/6714333419906332.
- 6Jordan Jereb (@JordanJereb), “Those of You Calling Me a ‘Fake White Nationalist’ Go Fuck Yourselves. There Was a Legit Misunderstanding Because We Have MULTIPLE People Named Nicholas in ROF,” Gab, February 15, 2018, https://gab.com/JordanJereb/posts/6714442219907292.
- 7“White Nationalist Appears to Disavow Connection with Shooter,” Associated Press, February 16, 2018, https://apnews.com/article/8247010fc41141ce83a679182ab841ba.
- 8Aaron Mak, “Update: Sheriff Says ‘No Known Ties’ Between Florida Shooter and White Supremacist Group,” Slate, February 15, 2018, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/02/law-enforcement-reports-no-known-ties-between-nikolas-cruz-and-white-supremacist-group-republic-of-florida.html.
- 9Musgrave, “How White Nationalists Fooled the Media about Florida Shooter.”
- 10Charles Bethea, “The Racists Trying To Exploit The Parkland Shooting,” The New Yorker, February 17, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-racists-trying-to-exploit-the-parkland-shooting.
- 11Holmes Lybrand, “Fact Check: Did Florida School Shooter Nikolas Cruz Train with a White-Supremacist Group?” Washington Examiner, February 16, 2018, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/fact-check-did-florida-school-shooter-nikolas-cruz-train-with-a-white-supremacist-group.
- 12Brian Flood, “Media Run with Unconfirmed Report Tying Florida School Shooter Nikolas Cruz to White Nationalist Group,” Fox News, February 19, 2018, https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/media-run-with-unconfirmed-report-tying-florida-school-shooter-nikolas-cruz-to-white-nationalist-group.
- 13David Emery, “Is the Florida Mass Shooter a Member of a White Supremacist Group?” Snopes, February 20, 2018, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/nikolas-cruz-white-supremacist-group/.
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
- 1Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160536293_1” 4chan, February 15, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, http://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160524925/#q160536293_1.
- 2Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160820621” 4chan, February 17, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, http://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160820621/#16082062; Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #160607183” 4chan, February 17, 2018, accessed via 4plebs, http://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/160597924/#160607183.
- 3weev, “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,” The Right Stuff 504um, February 15, 2018, accessed via https://archive.is/j6gpC#selection-7575.0-7911.2
- 4Karl Etters and Jeff Burlew, “Tallahassee White Supremacist Taken Away in Handcuffs after FBI Search,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 21, 2018, https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2018/03/21/fbi-searching-home-tallahassee-white-supremacist/445724002/.
- 5Anonymous, “/Pol/ - Politically Incorrect >> Thread #199433515” 4chan, January 11, 2019, accessed via 4plebs, https://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/199433515/#199433515.
Cite this case study
Brian Friedberg, "Misidentification: Republic of Florida Hoax," The Media Manipulation Case Book, July 7, 2021, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/misidentification-republic-florida-hoax.