First thing’s first: #CNNBlackmail was trending on Twitter all night and you can safely ignore it. It’s a bot-generated tag, which means that it was artificially induced to trend on Twitter by hordes of fake accounts run by computer programs.
“Why on Earth would anyone do that?” you might ask, and that’s a fair question. Essentially, the answer is “Propaganda.” Trending topics influence people’s opinions and thoughts. If you can get your hashtag trending, you can change minds and influence perceptions.
Getting a hashtag to trend on Twitter is a tricky process. There are a lot of ingredients that go into a trending hashtag. But you can take a lot of the trickiness out of the equation if you’re utilizing an army of fake accounts. And all it really takes to build that army is money. So, basically, anyone with money and an agenda can make a hashtag trend on Twitter.
The good news is that it’s not actually that hard to spot a bot-generated hashtag on Twitter. You can eyeball ’em most of the time if you have any familiarity with Twitter at all.
So, #CNNBlackmail is a forced trending hashtag that spent most of the night spreading misinformation and faux outrage about a stunt CNN pulled yesterday.
“What stunt is that?” you ask? Also a fair question.
A couple of days ago Trump tweeted a video of his old WWE wrestling appearance, with the wrestler he was fighting’s face changed into a CNN logo. That video came from a .gif created by some dude on Reddit’s r/the_donald subreddit. People went through that guy’s comment history and discovered that, shockingly, some guy on r/the_donald was a racist, anti-semitic chode. So a CNN journalist tracked down the actual guy behind the account and contacted him.
The guy issued an effusive and abject apology, and CNN wrote a story about it, pointing out that they knew who he was but weren’t going to reveal his name for various reasons, and that they reserved the right to change their minds and reveal the name in the future.
This sounded, uh, pretty threatening. I mean, I don’t know what CNN intended, if it was just poorly phrased or a bad copy editing choice or what, but it definitely sounded like a threat:
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. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.
CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
In a lovely example of why trending hashtags are important, everyone and their mother this morning has an opinion on CNN’s story. If a hashtag is trending and you can provide relevant content for it, then maybe you can drive some of those hashtag views to your website, where it turns into advertising revenue. And since every other news outlet, website, magazine and blog has a story about #CNNBlackmail, it lends an air of credence to the thing.
To people who are not marinating in the Internet 24-7, this probably looks like a real story. It’s not, though. It’s a forced hashtag bolstered by media companies trying to generate advertising revenue.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t at least some story here to think about. CNN seems to have said that as long as HanAssholeSolo plays ball, they’ll protect his anonymity. Is that wrong? Is it illegal? Is it unethical?
How you feel about the issue tends to depend on which side of the partisan divide you fall on. For example: I laughed my ass off when I first read the story, and my immediate reaction was “That’s what you get for being a giant dickhead.” To be honest, I’m still sitting pretty squarely in that category. But I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that questions of legality, morality, or ethics don’t come into play here.
Poynter’s “Ask the Ethicist” asked Indira Lakshmanan, Poynter’s Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics, about it, and she said, basically, either protecting HanAssholeSolo’s identity or not protecting it would be ethical, but protecting it with conditions? Seems a bit grayish.
Popehat tackled the actual legality and morality, and came down on CNN’s story being legal but morally icky, assuming they did intend their statement as a threat and not just bad writing.
Alexandra Erin on Twitter pointed out the pure practicalities of CNN’s story, noting that CNN was trying to protect themselves from a community of people that would attack any angle, and that in protecting one front, they’d left themselves open on another.
The fact of the matter is that if HanAssholeSolo’s real name were to come out, it would be horrifyingly embarrassing for him (or her, we don’t know). He might lose his job. There could be real and serious consequences.
He said some pretty awful stuff, and he did it either because he believed it, or because he thought it was funny to be a garbage person inciting hatred on the Internet. Either way, it’s hard to scrape up a lot of sympathy for a person like that.
Trump’s Internet fandom – of which HanAssholeSolo is a member – are a cesspool of hate, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and violent rhetoric. Moreover, they’re trolls, and their only real goal is to piss people off and make people look stupid. So if you give them an opportunity to say or do things one way, and count on that, they’ll turn on you in a second if they think they can score a point by screwing you.
So for CNN to say something along the lines of “Well, he’s apologizing and playing nice now, but if he changes his mind we’re gonna drop his name,” doesn’t strike me as an entirely unreasonable position to take. I honestly don’t know how else you’d deal with people like this.