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How a Crisis Actor Conspiracy Theory Rises in Times of Tragedy

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Within the outpouring of grief immediately after the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, posts appeared on Twitter and other social media platforms a few man named “Bernie.” He was a teacher at Robb Elementary School who died sheltering his students from gunfire, the posts said. Most of the posts included an image of a grinning, bearded man in glasses.

Some commenters piped up, saying they’d seen that face, and that name, before.

On that time, they were right. “Bernie” and the photograph had appeared before on some Twitter accounts that looked as in the event that they were from news organizations like CNN, Fox News and the BBC. Certainly one of those accounts said the person was a journalist executed in Kabul by the Taliban. A second one said he was an activist killed in Ukraine by a mine planted by Russian-backed separatists. A 3rd said he was murdered in last month’s massacre at a food market in Buffalo.

For those inclined toward conspiracy theories, the conclusion was obvious: “Bernie” was a so-called crisis actor, employed by the left to drum up sympathy for causes like gun control. His repeated appearances were used to prop up theories that major tragedies were hoaxes and that the mainstream media was complicit.

On all those points, the conspiracy theorists were flawed. There is no such thing as a “Bernie,” he’s not a crisis actor, and news organizations aren’t behind the posts. And the photo? It’s of a 36-year-old online gamer, Jordie Jordan. He’s alive, and he had nothing to do with the posts.

As a substitute, the posts are a part of a yearslong harassment campaign against him, happening on online platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Discord. The posts have over time spread bogus details about high-profile tragedies to the delight of a lot of those sharing the joke.

“I actually have nothing to do with it,” Mr. Jordan said in a video call. “They only take an image I put up on the web, they usually just put me into the whole lot.”

“Bernie” — the complete version appears like a racial slur when spoken aloud — has appeared greater than 8,700 times on Twitter, based on an evaluation conducted last week by Zignal Labs, a media insights company. The name has been mentioned greater than 1,200 times on Twitter for the reason that shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, an almost 6,000 percent increase from the prior two weeks, based on Zignal Labs.

The harassment seems to have began as a racist inside joke at Mr. Jordan’s expense. Because the campaign has continued, misinformation researchers say, it has shown how mass shootings and other tragedies have change into an amusement for a certain subset of the net world — a likelihood to sow confusion after which experience it. The initial posts, intended to troll, sometimes fuel rumors that the massacres are false-flag operations or staged propaganda events carried out by actors.

The falsehoods add to the trauma suffered by survivors and victims’ families, tarnishing the memories of their family members. Sometimes, as was the case after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the falsehoods result in harassment from conspiracy theorists.

“It really dehumanizes the events, the implications of shootings, and makes all of it right into a joke,” said Whitney Phillips, a longtime disinformation researcher.

Mr. Jordan, who streams himself playing video games on YouTube under the Wings of Redemption handle, has nearly 440,000 subscribers. He began playing Call of Duty for a web-based audience in 2008, after losing a job at a steel mill. Before that, he usually appeared on a podcast, where he attracted some criticism for his statements, including some homophobic and racial slurs, and comments in support of lowering the age of consent. “I actually have apologized profusely for the error of my juvenile thought process and live with the ramification of that day-after-day,” he said, attributing the comments to his “shock jock” routine.

He said he had first learned of the “Bernie” meme from Reddit posts in 2020. The photo that’s used is a selfie he took on his front porch in 2018 and posted on Twitter.

He said he had barely been troubled by the campaign initially, calling it “such a small thing” compared with the multiple times, he said, he was subjected to more dangerous trolling, including so-called swatting pranks, during which people place hoax phone calls to report fake crimes in an try to compel a response from law enforcement.

Mr. Jordan said he believed he had first change into the goal of significant trolling in 2018, after he raised tens of 1000’s of dollars from followers to undergo weight-loss surgery after which dragged his feet before undergoing the procedure. Photos that he posted from a hospital bed as proof that he had accomplished the operation were later utilized in fake reports of “Bernie’s” death.

In online chat rooms and livestreams, other gamers have suggested that the harassment began earlier, after Mr. Jordan’s displays of frustration and offensive comments during gaming sessions and podcast episodes.

“I believe this provides them a type of power,” he said of the people posting his photo, often under accounts intended to look as in the event that they belong to news organizations. “Messing with any person or making any person feel bad, or saying that’s just horrific that they’re so desensitized to, that provides them a sense of belonging.”

But what happens next is the much more insidious danger, Ms. Phillips said: The joke is taken at face value by the sizable portion of people who find themselves already primed to distrust society’s institutions.

“It just exacerbates all of the conspiratorial stuff that now we have swirling around and sets us on a dangerous course,” she said. “It further corrodes our ability to be grounded in the identical empirical reality.”

Such pranks have a protracted historical precedent, researchers said. One man, a comedian, has been falsely named because the gunman in several mass killings, including a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

“I don’t think you will discover an event of serious magnitude where this doesn’t occur within the aftermath — it’s almost a reflex at this point,” said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist on the Center for an Informed Public on the University of Washington. “Nowadays, individuals are promoting false-flag and crisis-actor theories 20 minutes after the event, and in very formulaic ways.”

Mr. Caulfield described the cycle as “almost factory production, happening like clockwork.”

In Mr. Jordan’s case, his photo resurfaces in social media posts from accounts that mimic news outlets and even copy their logos. A report last 12 months that “Bernie” had been executed by Taliban soldiers in Kabul was posted on Twitter from @CNNAfghan, a fake account that Twitter suspended, after which amplified by @BBCAfghanNews, one other suspended account, which cited “multiple reports” of the death.

“Bernie” has also been described as a victim of a tornado in Kentucky in 2021 and an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2020. @FoxNewsUkraine, a fake account with 17 followers that has also been suspended, claimed this 12 months that he was “a right-wing journalist” who had been killed in Mariupol, while @RussiaCnn, which has two followers, said he was a pilot who had been shot down while flying toward Russia.

@CnnZim, in its only post, said “Bernie” was a journalist who had been caught within the crossfire between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The account, which has no followers, describes itself in its profile as a “fake account,” adding, “Could delete later to prove how easy it’s to dupe people.” Several replies to the post chastised CNN, which isn’t affiliated with any of the fake accounts, for faulty journalism.

In response to an inquiry from The Recent York Times, Twitter said in an announcement that it had suspended a lot of the accounts for violating its policy against misleading and deceptive identities.

“According to our abusive behavior policy, we prohibit content that denies that mass murder or other mass casualty events took place, where we will confirm that the event occurred, and when the content is shared with abusive intent,” Twitter said.

George Galloway, a former member of the British Parliament who hosted a program called “The Mother of All Talk Shows” on the Russian-owned news outlet Sputnik, said falsely on the air in February that “Bernie’s” online appearances were an example of disinformation spread by the mainstream media. As proof, Mr. Galloway cited a tweet from an account called CNN Ukraine, which posted the photo and described “Bernie” as “the primary American casualty of the Ukraine crisis.” The account, which isn’t affiliated with CNN, has been suspended.

“Not one of the liars that lied, the sewers that carried their lies, all of the poor idiots who believed all of it — none of them will face any consequences for it,” Mr. Galloway thundered. The show now streams from his YouTube account, which has nearly 200,000 subscribers.

He said in a direct message on Twitter last week that it was an “honest mistake in a fast-moving live show” and that he was “sincerely sorry” and had apologized the night of the printed.

Around the identical time, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s representative to the United Nations, used two reports about “Bernie” from fake CNN accounts to criticize the mainstream media.

“Colleagues, beware, the principal battle isn’t in #Ukraine, it’s with lies and fakes of MSM,” Mr. Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter. CNN later debunked his claims, noting that “the ‘CNN Ukraine’ and ‘CNN Afghanistan’ accounts behind the tweets are each phonies which were suspended by Twitter for violating its policy against impersonation.”

Asked this week concerning the post, Mr. Polyanskiy said in direct message that he had forgotten about it within the three months since he put it up and had “no idea” who “Bernie” was.

“But should you imply that I wrongfully criticized MSM and since of those bogus accounts my criticism lacks credibility, I is not going to agree with it,” he wrote.

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