In the midst of the ongoing manhunt for Steve Stephens, who allegedly shot and killed a 74-year-old man on Sunday and then uploaded a video of the slaying to Facebook, members of the alt-right are spreading an altered image of the murder suspect under the guise of fighting “PC Culture.”
In the hours after the shooting, reports spread within alt-right social media circles that, in broadcasts, CNN was inhibiting the ongoing search for Stephens by refusing to tell viewers he was black:
In a broadcast that aired Sunday night, CNN listed a description of Stephens as issued by Cleveland PD when they announced the murder warrant. That broadcast didn’t list Stephens’ race onscreen alongside his height or weight. In later broadcasts, CNN used Stephens’ photo, but didn’t change the text of the official police description:
The right (alt or not) already has a pretty low opinion of CNN, and complaints about the network somehow covering up Stephens’ race quickly spread online. Then, similar to how a disease jumps from a cow to a chicken to a human, that same sentiment infected a screenshot from a Fox 8 broadcast of the story. The Cleveland Fox affiliate used a photo of Stephens, but didn’t include any onscreen information about his race. The picture was then photoshopped to include a bullet point about “Dark white skin.”
The “dark white” is an apparent sendup of how the media, paralyzed beyond sense by PC culture, refuses to identify black people as “black” and hurting liberal fee-fees. Which is idiotic, of course, because accompanying pictures of Stephen illustrate beyond a doubt that he’s a man of color. Nonetheless, searching “dark white skin” on Twitter shows dozens of users who believe that the media is somehow “covering up” his race or using sanitized language when identifying Stephens. Bizarrely, a few users are tweeting that CNN described Stephens as having “dark white skin,” though even the ‘shopped version clearly has “Fox 8" displayed in the corner.
Misinformation spreads quickly. The fact that an altered image of a Fox broadcast was so easily conflated with an unrelated CNN broadcast demonstrates both widespread media distrust and rock bottom media literacy. More perniciously, the incident shows how bigots can use tragedy as currency for their own moronic points about media sensitivity and PC culture. A remorseless killer still hasn’t been apprehended, but some people would rather complain about CNN’s word choice.
This, however, is one of the dangers of using crowdsourcing tactics during manhunts. Involving the public also means involving public prejudices and creates an opportunity for those hoping to twist both to their own ends. More and more often, innocent people are getting caught up in viral hoaxes to make them look like terror suspects. There’s little to be gained from this other than propagating racist misconceptions and sowing distrust in the media. Both, it seems, are spreading faster than ever.