Escaping the shrieking maw of Twitter aboard the hashtag #CNNblackmail, a story started circulating today about the news network threatening to release the personal information of a 15-year-old who made a gif tweeted by Donald Trump. Every one of those details, however, is utterly false, as was the case with the last dozen or so stories invented by the internet’s pro-Trump spheres of influence.
Here’s an approximate timeline of this week’s trip into unreality:
On July 2, the president tweeted the above gif, which takes footage of an appearance Trump made on WWE in 2007 and superimposes the CNN logo on the head of his opponent, Vince McMahon. A similar gif was posted to r/the_donald—the largest pro-Trump community on Reddit—by a user named HanAssholeSolo less than a week prior, and a moderator of the subreddit was quick to congratulate him.
The video tweeted by Trump is, at best, a heavily edited version of HanAssholeSolo’s GIF, and a White House spokesperson has since denied that the president sourced the GIF from Reddit. But at the time no one noticed or cared.
As scrutiny descended on the_donald, a litany of unflattering posts by HanAssholeSolo were uncovered which called for death to Muslims and made frequent use of racial epithets, and on July 4th around 7pm the Reddit user posted a lengthy apology. He distanced himself from the content of his posts, describing them as part of an “addiction... to get[ting] a reaction out of people” and warned others not to descend into the same pattern of negative attention-seeking behavior. Moderators of the_donald quickly deleted HanAssholeSolo’s apology.
Approximately three hours later, CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski wrote post claiming to have identified the Reddit user. It included two lines that struck readers and journalists alike as bizarre (emphasis ours):
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again... CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
In a situation where the subject of a story is likely to face significant backlash and potential threats, retaining their anonymity is often the best course of action for safety’s sake, but CNN’s caveat about future reportage was bizarre. A CNN executive told Gizmodo that the line—which may have been added during the editing process—was intended to show neither Kaczynski or the network itself had made any sort of deal with HanAssholeSolo. Instead many read it as a threat.
Let’s recap, because the shit’s about to hit the fan: a news network bungled the phrasing of a statement attempting to protect the identity of a subject who a portion of Reddit celebrated for having created a gif which the White House maintains the president did not tweet or source from Reddit.
Less than half an hour after CNN’s story hit, Centipede Central—the Discord chat room associated with the_donald—lit up. A room in CC was renamed ‘cnn-blackmail-happening’ and users discussed the best course of revenge against the network (again, despite HanAssholeSolo’s apology and subsequent account deletion occurring hours before the CNN story was ever published). The hashtag #CNNblackmail was agreed on, and some users—out of ignorance or the desire to spread more resonant disinformation—forwarded the theory that the Reddit user was underage.
Jack Posobiec was among the first pro-Trump celebrities to latch onto this with a now-deleted tweet claiming: “I can confirmed Reddit user HanAHoloSolo(sic) is 15 and is an LGBT Trump supporter.” A CNN executive told Gizmodo he was not at liberty to share the Reddit user’s identity but had heard that he was older than 37.
Julian Assange followed shortly thereafter with a tweet claiming the network had crossed some legal line according to his interpretation of New York state criminal codes. Even if that were the case, the Reddit user claimed he was living in Tennessee, and both CNN and its parent company Turner Broadcasting are incorporated in Atlanta, Georgia. Does it matter if these claims are obviously false? No. Anything to keep the bullshit merry-go-round spinning.
GotNews, Infowars, Mike Cernovich... all of the usual suspects began to pile on. By 1pm, the story topped The Drudge Report while Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about CNN’s supposed bullying of a 15-year-old.
Entertain the notion of CNN blackmailing a private citizen for half a second. What does a nearly four-decade-old news network gain by extorting a single person, one with (presumably) average means and no identifiable political power to speak of? It’s patently absurd, and predicated on so many misunderstandings it’s a wonder this house of cards ever got slapped together in the first place.
But there’s no shortage of people who want to be angry for its own sake. And the whiff of malfeasance is all the justification that sites like 8chan and neo-Nazi outfit The Daily Stormer needed to start collecting personal information on CNN employees. The former has three concurrent threads containing the phone numbers and addresses of any CNN employee its anonymous user base could get a hold of; the latter is calling for the network—and specifically the K-file team—to be “made to taste their own medicine.” This is how we reached the point where, as of this afternoon, people are supposedly intent on gathering in front of Kaczynski’s home in protest.
Does this feel familiar to anyone?
The ploy of associating CNN with blackmail obvious: to discredit the network’s reporting or at least push the narrative of a news agency embroiled in scandal. At the same time, doxxing campaigns are designed to frighten reporters and keep them from pursuing stories. But it’s all been done so many times by the same pack of non-contributing bottom-feeders, and what’s come of any of it?
Your tactics are fucking boring, guys, and they don’t work.
Even the lesser goal of going after CNN’s advertisers is well-worn, ineffective territory. It wasn’t what brought down Gawker. It certainly didn’t have a meaningful impact on The Wall Street Journal. And it won’t do a damn thing to CNN.
We all need to get the off this ride. It starts by not treating online disinformation campaigns that only serve the best interests of hucksters and frauds as genuine controversy.