Weeks after fact checkers debunked false reports that San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz had been arrested for misappropriating $3 million in disaster relief funds intended for the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the rumor continued to spread on social media.
On 15 July 2018, the junk news web site Your News Wire published a story headlined “Puerto Rico Mayor Facing Fraud Charges Over $3M in Federal Disaster Relief” which featured a photograph of Mayor Yulín Cruz wearing a t-shirt that read “Nasty” — a reference to President Donald Trump’s criticism of his 2016 presidential rival Hillary Clinton. Days later, fact checkers debunked the story, pointing out that a different Puerto Rican mayor, Miguel G. Ortiz-Vélez of the municipality Sabana Grande, was the one who had been indicted by the Justice Department, not Yulín Cruz.
Despite the fact the story was debunked almost as soon as it was published, versions of it continued to spread online in the following weeks. Many sites employed vague wording, apparently banking on the (apparently correct) assumption that readers would automatically assume the “Puerto Rico mayor” in question was Yulín Cruz, who regularly locked horns with President Trump over his administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria, which had devastated Puerto Rico one year earlier.
On the one-year anniversary of that event, the false story reporting Yulín Cruz had been arrested for corruption involving disaster relief funds again gained steam, with social media users posting YouTube videos containing misleading information. One such video was posted on 17 July 2018 by The Next News Network, a YouTube channel cooked up to look like a legitimate newscast while boasting of its intent of “Triggering SNOWFLAKES with Top CONSERVATIVE news published daily.”
The video led in with the introduction, “A Puerto Rican mayor getting busted on fraud charges for stealing over $3 million in federal funds” while displaying an image of Yulín Cruz alongside a photograph of federal agents who appeared to be in the midst of carrying out a search warrant. The hosts then complained at length about negative news stories blaming President Trump for the hurricane’s devastation and lobbed criticism at Yulín Cruz for wearing a t-shirt that said “nasty” on the front during a television interview, before finally landing at the 3-minute mark with an Associated Press report that correctly identified Ortiz-Vélez, not Yulín Cruz, as the indicted mayor:
We reached out to The Next News Network, as well as producer Brian D. Roberts via social media but did not receive a response.
Meanwhile a YouTube spokesperson pointed out the platform was working to prioritize legitimate news sources and pointed out that searches for Yulín Cruz’s name turned up links to legitimate news and entertainment sources:
We’re continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information available to YouTube viewers. Since 2017, we’ve been introducing a number of ways to improve access to authoritative information, including creating a “Breaking News” shelf on the YouTube homepage and “Top News” shelf in search that serves up content from reliable news sources after a major event, and just last month we announced further steps. This work is still in its early stages, but as these tools start to apply more widely across YouTube, we believe they will make authoritative content readily available.
We reached out to Facebook and Twitter, where links to similar misleading stories were also posted, but have not yet received a response.
Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, made landfall on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, on 20 September 2017. Since then President Trump and his supporters have repeatedly denigrated Yulín Cruz for her vocal criticism of the administration’s lack of intervention for the types of infrastructure failures that lead to preventable deaths in the aftermath of the storm. On 12 September 2018 for example, President Trump took a swipe at Yulín Cruz while boasting about the federal government’s response to the disaster and touting readiness for Hurricane Florence, which hit the U.S. East Coast in mid-September 2018:
We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2018
As of 20 September 2018, 41 deaths have been attributed to Hurricane Florence.