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Florida senator takes Twitter to task over hoax

Tim Johnson, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday that Twitter is taking steps to guard against the kind of fake tweets that hit the Miami Herald last month, but that "a lot more has got to be done."

Nelson called for a technical summit, led perhaps the Federal Trade Commission, to "get all of the relevant companies in the same room and talk about this problem with a collective sense of urgency and come up with some solutions." Such a summit should include social media platforms, digital content companies, software developers, news organizations and government agencies, he said.

However, the Twitter executives who met with Nelson on Thursday declined to identify those behind the hoax, which came shortly after the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead.

In the aftermath of the school massacre, a perpetrator sent out tweets containing manipulated images purporting to be tweets from a reporter at the Herald, a McClatchy news organization. The fake tweets appeared intended to rile the public, asking the race of the gunman and seeking photos from the scene.

One of the fake tweets went out at 10:50 p.m. on the night of the shooting. According to the Twitter executives, the tweet was seen only by 600 people. The reporter, Alex Harris, saw it immediately and posted her own tweet at 10:52 p.m. decrying the "doctored versions of tweets I sent while trying to tell the stories of victims and survivors."

Nelson said Twitter executives told him the company's algorithms elevated the visibility of Harris' response so that 600,000 account holders saw it. He said the hoax could have gone uncontested for many hours if it weren't for the reporter's quick response.

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"What if she had been asleep and didn't see that until the next morning when she's drinking coffee?" Nelson asked.

In a statement, San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. called the meeting with Nelson "productive" and added: "We appreciate his leadership, and take the issue of information quality on our platform very seriously."

Still, the company declined to provide information about the accounts used in the hoax, including a second incident in which a software-manipulated fake Miami Herald news story was passed around on Twitter and Snapchat. The fake story suggested that another school massacre was in the offing, this one to the south in Miami-Dade County, alarming parents, students and teachers alike.

Nelson said he'd like to know not only the identity but also the nationality of the perpetrator or perpetrators.


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