In keeping with the partisan blame game that typically ensues after mass shootings in the United States, the murders of seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida on 14 February 2018 prompted false and conflicting assertions about the motives and beliefs of the perpetrator.
It was inaccurately claimed, for example, that the confessed shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, is known to be a registered Democrat; that he was photographed wearing a t-shirt allegedly tying him to the anti-fascist group antifa; that he is an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient (or "Dreamer"); and that there is evidence proving he is connected to an Islamic terrorist group.
It was also asserted — in this instance accurately — that an Instagram account linked to Cruz featured an avatar that included a hat bearing the slogan "MAGA" ("Make America Great Again," a catchphrase used by President Trump and his supporters).
The day after the school attack, the Anti-Defamation League and mainstream news outlets including ABC News, The Daily Beast, and Associated Press reported that a leader of a white supremacist paramilitary group called Republic of Florida (ROF) claimed Cruz as a member and said he had attended their training sessions. According to the ADL's initial report:
A spokesperson for the white supremacist group Republic of Florida (ROF) told the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday, February 15, that Nikolas Cruz, the man charged with the previous day’s deadly shooting spree at a Parkland, Florida, high school, was associated with his group.
On Wednesday, February 14, Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, allegedly entered the school with an AR-15 and opened fire, killing at least 17 people and injuring 14 more. Cruz left the scene but was later captured by police and has been charged with premeditated murder.
After self-described ROF members claimed on the discussion forum 4chan that Cruz had also been a member, the Anti-Defamation League called the ROF hotline and spoke with an ROF member who identified himself as Jordan Jereb.
Jereb, based in Tallahassee, is believed to be the leader of ROF. In 2016, he was arrested on charges of threatening a staffer in the office of Florida Governor Rick Scott because he was allegedly angry at the staffer’s son.
Jereb said that Cruz was associated with ROF, having been “brought up” by another member. Jereb added that Cruz had participated in one or more ROF training exercises in the Tallahassee area, carpooling with other ROF members from south Florida.
The Daily Beast said Jereb told them the same thing, even when pressed to respond to a law enforcement official's statement that the allegation had not been confirmed:
"This is a difficult subject," [Jereb] said. "I’ve been taking calls all day on it. I’m many things, but I’m not a liar. I can’t lie. He was part of our organization. He wasn’t particularly active in it, but at some point he came to Tallahassee with I believe the Clearwater RoF. I know he didn’t live in Clearwater, but I think that was the company he clicked up with."
He also confirmed to the Associated Press that Cruz was a member of Republic of Florida, although, Jereb said, the accused shooter "acted on his own behalf of what he just did and he’s solely responsible for what he just did."
But later that same day, the Leon County Sheriff's Office announced that they had found "no known ties between the ROF, Jordan Jereb or the Broward shooter." Jereb appeared to walk back his previous statements in social media posts, CBS News reported:
Someone posting under his name on Gab, a social media site popular with far-right extremists, complained about getting criticized over a "prank," claimed there was a "misunderstanding" and said he received "a bunch of conflicting information."
By 16 February, it was clear that the ADL and the media had either been duped or had jumped the gun. Politico ran an article detailing how trolls and white nationalists conspired in the immediate aftermath of the shooting to spread disinformation about Nikolas Cruz:
The ADL traced its original tip to posts on 4chan, where researchers found “self-described ROF members” claiming that Cruz was a brother-in-arms. But many of those posts seem to have been written specifically to deceive reporters and researchers.
On [14 February], an anonymous 4chan user posted about receiving a message on Instagram from an ABC News reporter after making a joke suggesting he knew Cruz.
“Prime trolling opportunity,” another user replied.
“You have to take advantage of this,” a third chimed in.
It's unclear when the trolls settled on the bogus Jereb/ROF narrative, Politico reporter Shawn Musgrave wrote, but it quickly developed into a coordinated effort involving participants on 4Chan, Gab, The Right Stuff (a neo-Nazi forum), Instagram, and Discord (a chat app popular with white nationalists).
In posts to Gab, a social-networking site used by many in the alt-right, early Friday morning, one user said the Discord group “spent around 18 hours orchestrating, contacting ABC, being interviewed by reporters, etc.”
Members swapped links to articles that identified Cruz as a member of ROF, celebrating each story and keeping a tally of media interview attempts.
"ABC messaged me. Asked to use my name in this article," wrote one user.
"This is spreading like wildfire," wrote another user, "Renegade," after someone in the chat shared a link to the ADL blog post.
"All it takes is a single article," the first user wrote back. “And everyone else picks up the story.”
The ADL updated its report on 16 February 2018 to note that according to an alt-right message board, the claim of a connection between Cruz and ROF was "an elaborate attempt to troll a network news reporter and other media outlets," and noted that law enforcement officials had established no such link. (We reached out to ROF and requested a definitive statement regarding Cruz's alleged membership, but did not receive a reply.)
Even as the Republic of Florida narrative evaporated, however, other evidence came to light indicating that Cruz was known to have espoused racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and homophobic views — as well as an interest in guns and violence — prior to the Florida shootings.
CNN reported that beginning in August 2017, Cruz participated in a private Instagram chat group in which he felt free to vent his hatred of minority groups:
In one part of the group chat, Cruz wrote that he hated, "jews, ni**ers, immigrants."
He talked about killing Mexicans, keeping black people in chains and cutting their necks.
There are hundreds of racist messages, racist memes and racist Instagram videos posted in the group.
One member even joked about Cruz's particular venomousness, saying that although he hated black people, too, he didn't "to a point I wanna kill the (sic) like nick."
Cruz said he hated black people simply because they were black; Cruz hated Jews because he believed they wanted to destroy the world.
After one member expressed hatred for gay people, Cruz agreed, saying, "Shoot them in the back of head."
White women drew Cruz's hatred as well, specifically those in interracial relationships, whom he referred to repeatedly as traitors.
Cruz also participated in discussions about firearms and posted at least one video of himself firing his legally-purchased AR-15 rifle. In one chat he said, "I think I am going to kill people," though he later claimed to be joking. CNN said one member of the group told reporters that Cruz "seemed nice but also had some mental issues. All (I know) is that he likes guns and really hates liberals." (In addition, CBS News reported on 27 February that a federal law enforcement source "with direct knowledge of the investigation" had revealed that swastikas were found on ammunition magazines left by Cruz at the crime scene.)
Although CNN reported that nothing in the transcripts indicated that members of the chat group belonged to white nationalist or white supremacist organizations, if his statements were reported accurately, Cruz openly shares the views of people who do belong to them — as do, presumably, some of the trolls who fed disinformation to the media.
That they were successful is regrettable, but easier to stomach than the realization that this was their chosen response to the mass murder of seventeen innocent people.