How a Crisis Actor Conspiracy Theory Rises in Times of Tragedy

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In the outpouring of grief immediately after the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, posts appeared on Twitter and other social media platforms about a man named “Bernie.” He was a teacher at Robb Elementary School who died sheltering his students from gunfire, the posts said. Many of the posts included a picture of a grinning, bearded man in glasses.

Some commenters piped up, saying they had seen that face, and that name, before.

On that point, they were right. “Bernie” and the photograph had appeared before on some Twitter accounts that looked as if they were from news organizations like CNN, Fox News and the BBC. One of those accounts said the man was a journalist executed in Kabul by the Taliban. A second one said he was an activist killed in Ukraine by a mine planted by Russian-backed separatists. A third said he was murdered in last month’s massacre at a grocery store in Buffalo.

For those inclined toward conspiracy theories, the conclusion was obvious: “Bernie” was a so-called crisis actor, employed by the left to drum up sympathy for causes like gun control. His repeated appearances were used to prop up theories that major tragedies were hoaxes and that the mainstream media was complicit.

On all those points, the conspiracy theorists were wrong. There is no “Bernie,” he’s not a crisis actor, and news organizations are not behind the posts. And the photo? It is of a 36-year-old online gamer, Jordie Jordan. He’s alive, and he had nothing to do with the posts.

Instead, the posts are part of a yearslong harassment campaign against him, taking place on online platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Discord. The posts have over time spread bogus information about high-profile tragedies to the delight of many of those sharing the joke.

“I have nothing to do with it,” Mr. Jordan said in a video call. “They just take a picture I put up on the internet, and they just put me into everything.”

“Bernie” — the full version sounds like a racial slur when spoken aloud — has appeared more than 8,700 times on Twitter, according to an analysis conducted last week by Zignal Labs, a media insights company. The name has been mentioned more than 1,200 times on Twitter since the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, a nearly 6,000 percent increase from the prior two weeks, according to Zignal Labs.

The harassment seems to have started as a racist inside joke at Mr. Jordan’s expense. As the campaign has continued, misinformation researchers say, it has shown how mass shootings and other tragedies have become an amusement for a certain subset of the online world — a chance to sow confusion and then revel in it. The initial posts, intended to troll, sometimes fuel rumors that the massacres are false-flag operations or staged propaganda events carried out by actors.

The falsehoods add to the trauma suffered by survivors and victims’ families, tarnishing the memories of their loved ones. Sometimes, as was the case after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the falsehoods lead to harassment from conspiracy theorists.

“It really dehumanizes the events, the consequences of shootings, and makes it all into a joke,” said Whitney Phillips, a longtime disinformation researcher.

Mr. Jordan, who streams himself playing video games on YouTube under the Wings of Redemption handle, has nearly 440,000 subscribers. He began playing Call of Duty for an online audience in 2008, after losing a job at a steel mill. Before that, he regularly appeared on a podcast, where he attracted some criticism for his statements, including some homophobic and racial slurs, and comments in support of lowering the age of consent. “I have apologized profusely for the error of my juvenile thought process and live with the ramification of that every day,” he said, attributing the comments to his “shock jock” routine.

He said he had first learned of the “Bernie” meme from Reddit posts in 2020. The photo that is used is a selfie he took on his front porch in 2018 and posted on Twitter.

He said he had barely been troubled by the campaign initially, calling it “such a small thing” compared with the multiple times, he said, he was subjected to more dangerous trolling, including so-called swatting pranks, in which people place hoax phone calls to report fake crimes in an attempt to compel a response from law enforcement.

Mr. Jordan said he believed he had first become the target of serious trolling in 2018, after he raised tens of thousands of dollars from followers to undergo weight-loss surgery and then dragged his feet before undergoing the procedure. Photos that he posted from a hospital bed as proof that he had completed the operation were later used in fake reports of “Bernie’s” death.

In online chat rooms and livestreams, other gamers have suggested that the harassment began earlier, after Mr. Jordan’s displays of frustration and offensive comments during gaming sessions and podcast episodes.

“I think this gives them a form of power,” he said of the people posting his photo, often under accounts intended to look as if they belong to news organizations. “Messing with somebody or making somebody feel bad, or saying that is just horrific that they’re so desensitized to, that gives them a feeling of belonging.”

But what happens next is the even more insidious danger, Ms. Phillips said: The joke is taken at face value by the sizable portion of people who are already primed to distrust society’s institutions.

“It just exacerbates all the conspiratorial stuff that we have swirling around and sets us on a dangerous course,” she said. “It further corrodes our ability to be grounded in the same empirical reality.”

Such pranks have a long historical precedent, researchers said. One man, a comedian, has been falsely named as the gunman in several mass killings, including a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

“I don’t think you can find an event of significant magnitude where this doesn’t happen in the aftermath — it’s almost a reflex at this point,” said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington. “Nowadays, people are promoting false-flag and crisis-actor theories 20 minutes after the event, and in very formulaic ways.”

Mr. Caulfield described the cycle as “almost factory production, happening like clockwork.”

In Mr. Jordan’s case, his photo resurfaces in social media posts from accounts that mimic news outlets and even copy their logos. A report last year that “Bernie” had been executed by Taliban soldiers in Kabul was posted on Twitter from @CNNAfghan, a fake account that Twitter suspended, and then amplified by @BBCAfghanNews, another suspended account, which cited “multiple reports” of the death.

“Bernie” has also been described as a victim of a tornado in Kentucky in 2021 and an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2020. @FoxNewsUkraine, a fake account with 17 followers that has also been suspended, claimed this year that he was “a right-wing journalist” who had been killed in Mariupol, while @RussiaCnn, which has two followers, said he was a pilot who had been shot down while flying toward Russia.

@CnnZim, in its only post, said “Bernie” was a journalist who had been caught in the crossfire between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The account, which has no followers, describes itself in its profile as a “fake account,” adding, “Could delete later to prove how easy it is to dupe people.” Several replies to the post chastised CNN, which is not affiliated with any of the fake accounts, for faulty journalism.

In response to an inquiry from The New York Times, Twitter said in a statement that it had suspended most of the accounts for violating its policy against misleading and deceptive identities.

“In line with our abusive behavior policy, we prohibit content that denies that mass murder or other mass casualty events took place, where we can verify that the event occurred, and when the content is shared with abusive intent,” Twitter said.

George Galloway, a former member of the British Parliament who hosted a program called “The Mother of All Talk Shows” on the Russian-owned news outlet Sputnik, said falsely on the air in February that “Bernie’s” online appearances were an example of disinformation spread by the mainstream media. As proof, Mr. Galloway cited a tweet from an account called CNN Ukraine, which posted the photo and described “Bernie” as “the first American casualty of the Ukraine crisis.” The account, which is not affiliated with CNN, has been suspended.

“None of the liars that lied, the sewers that carried their lies, all the poor idiots who believed it all — none of them will face any consequences for it,” Mr. Galloway thundered. The show now streams from his YouTube account, which has nearly 200,000 subscribers.

He said in a direct message on Twitter last week that it was an “honest mistake in a fast-moving live show” and that he was “sincerely sorry” and had apologized the night of the broadcast.

Around the same time, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s representative to the United Nations, used two reports about “Bernie” from fake CNN accounts to criticize the mainstream media.

“Colleagues, beware, the main battle is not in #Ukraine, it’s with lies and fakes of MSM,” Mr. Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter. CNN later debunked his claims, noting that “the ‘CNN Ukraine’ and ‘CNN Afghanistan’ accounts behind the tweets are both phonies that have been suspended by Twitter for violating its policy against impersonation.”

Asked this week about the post, Mr. Polyanskiy said in direct message that he had forgotten about it in the three months since he put it up and had “no idea” who “Bernie” was.

“But if you imply that I wrongfully criticized MSM and because of these bogus accounts my criticism lacks credibility, I will not agree with it,” he wrote.