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Hurricane Sarah

McCain's new partnership with a telegenic mother-of-five has dramatically shifted the dynamics and d

Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna may have brought hell to the people of America's Gulf Coast, but they came like manna from heaven for Senator John McCain, his brand-new running mate Sarah Palin, and the Republicans. First, McCain was quicker off the mark than Barack Obama by taking the decision to abandon political rallies, and he toured the affected areas instead - getting priceless footage on to the nation's television screens of a would-be president looking and acting just like a president should, receiving briefings and talking knowledgeably about the situation in press conferences and interviews. Obama, meanwhile, was stuck looking helpless in Lima, Ohio - 1,000km north.

Second, Hurricane Gustav made landfall in the early hours of 1 September, the day the Republican convention, destined to crown McCain and Palin, was due to begin in St Paul, Minnesota. You would have thought, four days after the Democratic convention in Denver reached a televised climax with Senator Obama's acceptance speech, fireworks and balloons at his $6m extravaganza in the Denver Broncos stad ium, that McCainites would have wanted every minute of live, coast-to-coast television they could get.

But a convention on Monday night would have been their nightmare: the scheduled speakers were none other than George W Bush and Dick Cheney - the last thing McCain would have wanted the nation to see was those two passing their mantle to him. Bush, mindful of his ineffable performance when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, stayed at the White House and immediately cancelled his appointment at the convention. So did Cheney, who was off - phew! - to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan the next day, making any appearance by him impossible.

Third, besides creating the illusion that he was taking charge of hurricane preparedness, McCain - emboldened, I suspect, by at last having a running mate of his own - seized the opportunity to make himself appear to be a thoroughly responsible decision-maker by selflessly cancelling the razzmatazz planned for Monday night. "This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans," McCain said in an oh-so-respon sible broadcast that, had he been reading more fluently from an autocue and with the presidential seal in front of him, could have been coming from the White House itself. "We take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats," he went on. What a statesman!

Fourth, and in what may prove to be the most valuable of all the unlikely benefits Gustav and Hanna bring to the Republicans, the storms took much of the immediate public pressure off McCain's vice-presidential running-mate. I understand that the 44-year-old governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin - whose name McCain announced to a stunned world the day after Obama's fireworks - spent the hours closeted, out of the limelight, with party apparatchiks in St Paul, frantically trying to get up to speed on national and foreign policy issues for the hustings and, above all, for the much-awaited evening when she comes face-to-face with Senator Joe Biden at the vice-presidential debate in St Louis, Missouri, on 2 October.

At a stroke, McCain has seized much of the “change” territory

for himself

Inevitably, the dirt about Governor Palin was already flying. First came the national airing of "Troopergate," a saga that has already received wide publicity in Alaska: Palin has been accused of sacking the state's public safety commissioner because he refused to dismiss a policeman named Mike Wooten - Palin's former brother-in-law, who had divorced her sister and Tasered her 12-year-old nephew. Wooten has been reprimanded a dozen or so times since 2001, but because Palin herself has acquired a reputation for being incorruptible in a state that is notoriously corrupt, the story took off.

A calculated risk

Then, last Monday, came the "bombshell" that Palin's 17-year-old, unmarried daughter Bristol was five months pregnant - and was going to marry her high-school boyfriend, the baby's father. But in this peculiarly nasty campaign, the furore did not stop there. Blogs such as http://www.barackoblogger.com, as well as some in the mainstream media, starting putting out untrue allegations that Palin's own five-month-old son, Trig - who has Down's syndrome - is, in fact, the child of Bristol.

I wrote recently that Obama is taking a "colossal" risk in having Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, but it is nothing compared to that of McCain's risk when it comes to Palin. The two had never even met until February, when they had a 15-minute chat at a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington.

But, despite the legions of Democratic and Republican operatives heading for Anchorage as I write, the McCain campaign insists that Palin's background had been carefully vetted, and that they already knew about Trooper- and Babygate; they say privately that they wanted both supposed scandals to come out early, so that manufactured furores in the final two months before polling day could be avoided.

The truth, though, is that McCain needed to do something dramatic to light fire to his campaign. Although he was holding his own against Obama to a degree many found surprising for a Republican in George W Bush's America of 2008, his campaign was not gaining traction. The problem facing him was that nearly all the obvious possible running mates were white men on the wrong side of middle age, such as former governors Mitt Romney (the choice until the last moment) or Tom Ridge - or even Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate in 2000 who has been drifting rightwards ever since and is now an Independent. The one remaining alternative was 47-year-old Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, but he is not especially telegenic.

So a woman it had to be. McCain seriously considered Meg Whitman, the 58-year-old founder and former chief executive of eBay, and Carly Fiorina, 53, the former boss of Hewlett-Packard, but neither had the necessary political instincts. He also needed somebody as young as possible to offset his own biggest liability - his age, now 72- and finally came up with Palin, 44, whose popularity ratings in Alaska have just soared to an unprecedented 80 per cent. By choosing her, the McCain ticket magically morphed into one that was, on average, only two years older than Obama.

McCain's announcement, which came the day after Obama's acceptance speech and stole much of his thunder, changed the entire dynamics of the race. The Obama team had prepared McCain-Romney, McCain-Lieberman, and McCain-Pawlenty attack ads, ready to be broadcasted across the nation the moment the Republican nominee made his announcement. But even they, the fastest-moving and most efficient campaign organisation since Bill Clinton's took President George Bush Sr by surprise in 1992, were not at all prepared for Governor Palin.

In one single strike, therefore, McCain had altered the thrust and direction meticulously planned by both sides. The Obama campaign had settled on a strategy of hammering away until election day on 4 November with the insistence that a McCain presidency would merely be a continuation of George W Bush's, constantly using the slogan "McCain the Same" in their two-month blitz of ads.

Suddenly, though, that argument weakened when Obama found himself facing an opponent whose running mate - rather than the stodgy old Romney or Ridge figure he had expected - was a self-described "hockey mom" and mother-of-five from Alaska, known to her basketball teammates in school as "Sarah Barracuda". The argument that the Obama-Biden ticket alone represented "change" also suddenly weakened; arguably, the McCain-Palin ticket now represented an even more seismic change.

For his part, McCain largely sacrificed his "experience" and "not ready to lead" arguments against the Democrats by choosing Palin. She, after all, did not even have a passport until she recently applied for one to visit Alaskan National Guard troops in Germany and Kuwait, so McCain could hardly continue to campaign against Obama by citing his foreign policy inexperience.

At a stroke, though, McCain had seized much of the "change" territory for himself: instead of two men in jackets and ties taking over the White House in 20 January as usual, he could argue that he is offering the prospect of a man and a mother-of-five in a skirt doing so instead. He had also positioned himself to steal a chunk of the non-ideological female supporters of Hillary Clinton, who are still chafing bitterly at the way Obama treated the Clintons; the database of Hillary donors would be like Alaskan gold-dust should it somehow mysteriously find its way into the McCain camp.

McCain's decision has also made life much more difficult for Biden, Obama's designated attack dog: at 65, he is from a generation still not comfortable with the notion of gender equality, and the possibility that he could bully and/or patronise Palin in the vice-presidential debate is a very real one. That alone would badly damage Obama, especially with female voters.

All of which is to say that we now have a new 2008 election on our hands, its dynamics and directions dramatically shifted. The supreme irony in the debate about Palin's lack of "experience" is that, compared with Hillary Clinton, McCain or Obama, she is the only one to have had actual executive experience of running anything: two years as governor of the nation's sixth most affluent state which is twice the size of Texas. This is the reason Americans have traditionally looked to governors, rather than senators or congressmen, to be their presidents; either McCain or Obama will be only the third president in history to have gone from the Senate to the White House (the others being Warren Harding in 1921 and JFK in 1961).

It is too early to say what Palin's arrival has done to the persistently close poll figures; Obama's extravaganza appeared to have given him little or no bounce until 1 September, when CBS found him five points up from before the Democratic convention. That gave him an overall lead of eight points, the largest so far.

Daily tracking polls, though, still showed Obama with statistically insignificant leads, ranging from one to six points. These polls mean little, in any case, until each party has had its convention enthroning its candidate and his running mate, and the real, post-Labor Day battle has commenced. Which means that next week we will have an altogether better idea of just how much the unexpected advent on the scene of Sarah Barracuda is affecting this most bizarre of US presidential elections.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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“Yes, it was entertaining”: A twisted tale of Twitter trolls and fake terror victims

Here’s what happened when I contacted people involved in the insidious new social media trend.

When I reach out to Sam to ask why she stole the image of a 19-year-old Minnesotan man to post on her Twitter account, the first thing she says is: “Am I getting paid?” The day after the Manchester Arena bombing, Sam took the profile picture of a man named Abdulfatah and posted it alongside a 137-character tweet. “Please retweet to help find Abdul,” she wrote. “He has chemo and we're very worried. We last heard from him before Ariana's concert”. She rounded it off with a hashtag. #PrayForManchester.

Abdulfatah was not a victim of the Manchester bombing and nor was he at Ariana’s concert, as he has been living in Cairo for the last year. Sam’s tweet was a lie that generated (at the time of writing) 1,280 retweets, mostly from people simply trying to help after a tragic terrorist attack. Over the last few years, trolls have responded to terrorism and other catastrophes by opportunistically pretending that their friends and family are among the victims of attacks. After the Manchester bombing, a handful of accounts continued this trend – for varied reasons.

“I had no aim,” is Sam’s simple response to being asked why she posted her tweet.

Sam explains that she wants me to pay her so she can “feed [her] team”, who she says are called the Halal Gang. After explaining that I cannot ethically pay for her interview, she concedes to speak when I say that I will link to her twitter account (@skrrtskrtt).

Born a male, 18-year-old Sam tells me she “prefers female pronouns” and immediately gives me her full name, town of residence, and the name of the English university where she studies civil engineering. When I ask for a form of ID to prove her identity, she claims she left her wallet on campus. When I ask her to simply email from her university email address, she says – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – “unfortunately i cannot provide u with evidence at this very moment”. For this reason, I will refer to her by her first name only. Her quotes are here copied verbatim from the messages she sent me online.

“I chose that mans image because he seemed like an easy target. I was quite intrigued by the huge number of retweets because i got the attention i never got at home. And yes i did him a favour by getting him clout. He's ugly so i guess I got him some girls. People who also made fake missing people are G's and i salute them.”

Why did you do it, I ask? The reply is one word. “Entertainment”.

***

Abdulfatah was casually scrolling through Twitter when he realised his profile picture had been stolen. “Honestly, it was horrific,” he tells me – again over Twitter’s messaging service – “I hope nobody has to go through what I did. Just imagine scrolling through Twitter only to find that some random person used your photo to claim you’ve gone missing in a bombing.”

When Abdulfatah decided to confront his troll on Twitter, his tweet got 63,000 retweets and 98,000 likes. “i'm from Cairo and i don't have Chemo... who tf are you? how do you know me???” he wrote – and his response went on to be featured in articles by The Sun, Yahoo!, Mashable, and AOL.com. The tweet is part of a larger story that has spread over the last few days – of “sick Twitters trolls” targeting innocent people by pretending they are missing. 

My Twitter chat with Abdulfatah spans a few hours, and he hammers home how “vile and disgusting” he finds the act of spreading fake victims on social media. “I hope people come to their senses soon and stop this type of behaviour. It’s not funny at all.” Half an hour after we exchange goodbyes, he messages me to explain that there is something else he wants to say.

“I totally forgot to mention this,” he begins. “I couldn't have done this without this groupchat I'm in called ‘Halal Gang’.”

***

In their 2017 book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, authors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner dedicate an entire chapter to “Identity Play” on the internet.

“Online and off, identity is a series of masks,” they write. “Whether online deceptions are harmless or targeted or somewhere in between, determining why anonymous or pseudonymous actors do the things they do can be very difficult.”

So why do people use the internet to deceive? The authors’ argue it is simple: “because they’re able to: because the contours of the space allow it.”

Creating a person online is incredibly simple. Believing that someone online is who they say they are is even easier. Many newspapers now create entire stories based around a single tweet – taking what is said and who said it as fact, and covering their backs with a few “appears to have” and “allegedly”s. By taking viral tweets at face value and crafting stories around them, media companies consistently break one of the internet’s oldest rules. Do not feed the trolls. 

***

Abdulfatah sent me a copy of his provisional driver’s license to prove to me that he is who he claims. After his announcement about the Halal Gang, I became suspicious that both the victim, Abdulfatah, and the perpetrator, Sam, were in fact working together to go viral. Why else would they both independently reference the same group? Instead of a random troll picking on a random person, was this the case of two friends working together to achieve social media fame?

“I have never met this person prior to this incident,” said Abdulfatah over Twitter, promising me that I could call him for clarification (at the time of writing, he has not answered his phone). “I feel offended that someone like that would ever try to claim to be a part of our group.” Abdulfatah was added to the Halal Gang (which is a Twitter group chat) in January, and says to me: “I promise you this isn't a troll.” It is worth noting that a Twitter search shows that Abdulfatah and Sam have never previously interacted publicly on the site.

From 19:43 to 20:30 on Wednesday night, I was added to the Halal Gang chat. The group describes themselves as a place for young people to “find peace and tranquillity” through the Islamic faith. The 12 members told me Sam was a “lost person” who used to be in the chat but was kicked out for inappropriate behaviour. Abdulfatah was her replacement (he says he didn’t know this) and thus Sam targeted him in her tweet after the Manchester attack. One member of the Halal Gang said that Sam was his ex and went on to send a sexually-suggestive picture of her in the chat.

“It wasn’t our intention to go viral, just to help out Abdul but I guess it was kind of cool to go viral lol,” said one member.

Rather than trolls targeting random people, this incident therefore seemed to be a case of personal rivalry and revenge. This goes some way to explaining the psychology behind, and the motivations of, people who claim to have missing friends and family after terrorist attacks. According to the Halal Gang, Sam was simply targeting her replacement, Abdulfatah, because she likes trolling.

But then, at midnight, I received another Twitter message, from a person wishing to remain strictly anonymous.

“This is a MAJOR conspiracy,” they wrote.

***

Most of the time people make up fake victims on social media, the motives are cut and dried.

Andrea Noel is a Mexican journalist whose picture was circulated after the Manchester bombing, in a collage purporting to show 20 missing people. She has been trolled extensively in the past after speaking on social media about her sexual assault, and believes some of the same “anti-feminist” trolls may have been at work.

“I started getting Facebook messages and Twitter messages from various people that I know… getting in touch with me to make sure I wasn’t in Manchester,” she tells me over the phone.

The collage Andrea appears in also includes photographs of YouTubers, and was featured on the Daily Mail’s Twitter and Fox News as a legitimate collage of missing people. According to Buzzfeed, 4Chan trolls may have been behind the picture, choosing people they disliked as their victims.

Yet when a handful of people create a fake image, it is thousands more who are responsible for its impact. In 2013, researchers found that 86 per cent of tweets spreading fake images after Hurricane Sandy were retweets, not original tweets.

Caroline Leo is a 16-year-old from Florida who gained over 15,000 retweets on her tweet of the collage. “I felt good about it because I was helping find so many people and my phone was literally freezing and I had to turn it off for a little while,” she tells me of the initial reaction to the tweet. Yet when multiple people contacted her to say it was fake, she decided not to delete it as some of those featured in the picture were actual missing people. “I was so happy to make their faces familiar to over one million people and I wanted to keep it up because I like Ariana so much and I wanted to help other people who love her just as much as I do,” she says.

Andrea understands Caroline’s motivations, but does think people need to be more careful about what they spread online. “If you realise that half of these people are YouTubers then just delete it, you know. Make a new one,” she says. “I understand that she’s trying to be sweet but after a couple of hours everyone knew this was fake… so, really just make a new one.”

Yet a big part of the reason people create fake images – or accidentally spread them believing them to be real and then don't want to delete them – is for the likes, retweets, and comments. The buzz that we feel from social media attention doesn’t go away just because of a tragedy, and Dr Linda Kaye, an expert in the psychological impacts of technology, explains social media interactions facilitate our “need satisfaction”.

“Humans are social animals and have a basic need for social belonging,” she says. “Perhaps these individuals who [use social media] in this way to gain ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family. Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

John, a YouTuber who was also featured in the collage and in a separate tweet claiming he was missing, urges people to think before they act on social media. “If there is one thing I would like to say about this all... I understand that during events such as this, information can develop and spread very rapidly,” he tells me, “but it doesn't hurt to try to confirm information through a second source.

“For instance, say that a story on Yahoo is claiming that I was a victim - is the BBC reporting the same story? During a crisis situation, I feel that disseminating the correct information to the general public is absolutely crucial and potentially lifesaving.”

***

The Twitter user who contacted me about the Halal Gang “conspiracy” refused to speak when I said I would not transfer $10 to his PayPal account. “$10 is a steal for the info I have not gonna lie,” they said. When I refused, they sent me this offensive meme from the adult cartoon The Boondocks.

At 3:05am, another anonymous Twitter user messaged me. They claimed that the man in the Halal Gang who claimed to be Sam’s ex and had sent me a sexual picture of her, was in fact trying to humiliate his ex. “It’s embarrassing don’t use that picture in any articles,” they wrote.

As it stands, there is potential that the Halal Gang were working together to get multiple viral tweets. There is also potential that the man who asked me for $10 was also trolling in turn by trying to tell me the Halal Gang were acting like this when they are, in fact, innocent. Yet if not Abdulfatah, some members of the group seem to be corresponding with Sam, as she changed her story after I spoke with them. “I believe they kicked me way before the incident and I’ll be completely honest with you, I wanted to get them back, yes,” she says, despite moments earlier saying that they kicked her out after her Manchester attack tweet.

It is impossible to work out Sam’s true motivations for creating a fake victim, as she is hiding behind her online persona and simply answered “nope” when I asked if there was a number I could call her on. Her comments – that she lives in a foster home and is emotionally abused by her family, that she is “not dumb enough to go to an Ariana Grande concert”, and that people critical of her actions “need to move on init” – read as though she is simply trolling me, a journalist, in turn.

There is no real way for me to know who is who they say they are, and whether the Halal Gang are telling the truth that they didn't collaborate with Sam (they refuse to send over screenshots of her being kicked out from the groupchat, as the chat has a “no SS” rule). As Phillips and Milner note, even experts have great difficulty identifying people online. Either way, there is clearly more of connection between Sam and Abdulfatah than the two initial tweets made it seem. 

The reason why this matters is because this story isn’t really about Sam, nor is it about Abdulfatah. If two friends (or people involved in the same group) seek to get revenge or go viral by attacking each other on social media, it is not their actions that have wide-reaching ramifications. It is the actions of the hundreds of thousands of people who choose to Retweet uncorroborated claims, and the journalists who take tweets as gospel. Naturally, in the painful hours proceeding a terror attack, we all make mistakes about what we share on social media. But we can fix them and we can avoid making the mistakes again.

Before claiming she wanted revenge, Sam told me she was acting on a desire to be entertained. I check with her, after this revelation, whether she succeeded in this aim. “So did you find it entertaining?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “It was entertaining.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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