It started with a fairly run-of-the-mill crime story. Police were investigating a shooting that injured one man who was visiting some relatives in Rochester, Minn.
KIMT TV — a CBS affiliate based in Mason City, Iowa, that covers southeast Minnesota — wrote up a story with info from the cops: The victim called police and said he was out smoking a cigarette when two cars pulled up. They stopped, and someone fired at him. He was hurt and taken to the hospital.
This apparently random shooting in a city isn’t the type of news story that usually gets an international audience.
There was one detail, though, that caught the attention of several far-right extremist websites: The victim described his alleged assailant as Somali.
Citing the KIMT report, a site called Truth Monitor wrote a post of its own titled “TERROR IN MINNESOTA – Refugees Do the Unthinkable…”
Here’s the lead:
“Ever since President Trump signed his immigration ban, the mainstream media has been trying to make it look like Muslim migrants are innocent people who never cause violence in the United States. That’s why the mainstream media is trying to sweep this story under the rug…”
That post got shared on Facebook over 25,000 times, according to Buzzsumo, which tracks social media analytics.
An identical post on a site called Right Journalist got almost 20,000 Facebook shares.
World Politicus wrote a different article headlined “Refugees Are Getting Belligerent: Somalian Migrants Shoot A 33-year-old Man in Minnesota.”
Almost 60 percent of people don’t get past the headline when sharing news online.
For those who did read on, anti-immigrant propaganda continued past the title and into the copy.
Here’s World Politicus writer “A.T.”:
“[The victim] said that a couple of cars driven by Somalian immigrants confronted him and stopped. One of the Somalians then got out of a silver Honda Accord and shot at him several times. … Be sure to let us know what you think about the behavior of these migrants in the comment section below and share this story on the social media to spread the news.”
World Politicus pushed the story to its 1.1 million Facebook followers. Users shared the link some 15,000 times, according to Buzzsumo. Another like-minded piece from DefiantAmerica.com got 11,500 Facebook shares.
That story was more than just untrue: It was illegal, too. Defiant America’s article led with a photo — stolen from KIMT — of a man arrested last summer for a different crime.
Essentially, the website used a stock photo of black man, presumably to conjure racist fears while also breaking defamation and copyright laws.
Anti-Islamic provocateur Pamela Geller picked up the story as well. She called the incident “Obama’s true legacy.”
Seeing any themes yet?
KIMT took down its story a couple days after it published.
“We did not like what people were doing on it,” said KIMT’s Mike Bunge, who wrote the piece.
He didn’t realize how the story had spread; some coworkers noticed it.
Asked if he had any idea why his basic report got so contorted, Bunge said, “Your guess is as good as mine, frankly.”
What is known about the shooting
There are some facts in this case. Catharine Richert, MPR News’ Rochester reporter, followed up with officer Steve Beery shortly after the shooting was reported:
There was one shooter and two cars. The victim didn’t know anyone in the cars. The shooting seemed random, though it appeared there were gang members involved. The shooter asked the victim to do something, but Beery wouldn’t say what.
Only the shooter was described as Somali. There wasn’t a good description of the others. The victim “made assumptions,” Beery said.
The car had tinted windows.
Viral false narratives and the opaque sites that spin them
Bunge’s original story for KIMT didn’t get much of an audience compared to the outlets that cited it.
Aside from Geller’s, all the sites are essentially faceless.
The bylines are fake or unverifiable. Some don’t have working emails. Multiple attempts to contact the sites’ operators were not returned.
Some digging to see who was behind the pages led to a domain security firm in Toronto, Canada, and a PO box in Panama.
It’d be easy to dismiss these publishers’ write-ups as just further examples of “fake news.”
But that misses the point.
Many thousands of people were led to believe that there was an act of terrorism by a Somali refugee in southern Minnesota.
All this because a man told police he thought Somali men had shot at him.
For those with anti-immigrant and nationalist views, infatuation with this particular type of “news” can be just a product of confirmation bias.
Sometimes, though, how these distorted “news” stories spread is not so simple.
Dale Potter, who lives in Boston, shared World Politicus’ story on Facebook and wrote, “It’s time America get armed for war here!”
In an interview, Potter said it feels like the U.S. is on the verge of a war with Muslims. He said there are 23 “Muslim training camps” around the country. Presumably, he was referring to a conspiracy theory pushed by ultra-conservative media. Regardless, he said he’d been hearing about the purported camps for years.
Potter is 58 and retired. He’s politically independent and voted for Donald Trump, though he said the president sometimes upsets him and thinks he isn’t acting very “presidential.”
When told the facts of what happened that night in Rochester earlier this month — that the shooter’s identity is unknown, that it was dark out and that the car had tinted windows — Potter’s mind changed.
Knowing the facts, however limited, but without spin, Potter said he wouldn’t have shared World Politicus’ story again.
Potter described himself as an anxious person, and the article, “it probably got my emotions flowing,” he said.
He said he tries taking in news from a variety of sources, and he doesn’t take what he reads online at face value. He tries making up his own mind on things.
Potter didn’t know there were issues with the World Politicus article.
“I had no idea the story was coming from a biased side,” he said. “That’s the trouble with fake news. There’s so much fake news out there.”