If you read this New York Times article about Dylann Roof on Saturday afternoon, you may have learned the following about the suspected Charleston shooter’s online manifesto:
Benjamin Wareing, a blogger in Britain, said the writings are nearly identical to blog posts that Mr. Roof posted several months ago on a separate Tumblr page. Mr. Wareing was preparing to write an essay on the dangers of Tumblr and troubled youths, so he took notes on the writings.
“He just made really stupid but obvious statements about people from other races,” Mr. Wareing said in an email. “He would call black citizens ‘nuggets’ and such. He never made direct threats at all on Tumblr, at least it didn’t seem like that, just weird ramblings about how he felt he ‘didn’t fit in.’”
Among his writings were images of 9/11 “memes” and of “My Little Pony,” Mr. Wareing said.
That’s right: the shooter of nine people was a “brony”—a male devotee of the children’s TV show.
The only problem? It was all a complete fabrication by Wareing, a British 16-year-old with a Hotmail email address who never met or communicated with Roof, he told Fusion today. He never found a Tumblr account belonging to Roof, and the My Little Pony detail was created out of thin air, he said.
The Times article in question, by Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Frances Robles, has since been edited to remove those details. According to the website NewsDiffs, which archives old versions of New York Times stories, the interview with Wareing was only online for a couple hours—it was added around 1:56 p.m. Eastern on June 20 and removed by 4:44 p.m. the same day. Wareing posted a screenshot of the unedited Times article in a blog post admitting his ruse.
The fact that the Times was tricked by a kid an ocean away from Charleston is a quirk of modern journalism: As soon as Roof’s name leaked, reporters flocked to the suspect’s Facebook page, which was private except for a profile picture and his list of friends. So reporters (ourselves included) started messaging those friends.
But a half dozen of Roof’s Facebook friends told Fusion that the suspected shooter added them randomly and that they had never met. There were a lot of status updates like this posted Thursday morning:
Wareing’s friend Sadrak Ramirez, who lives in Lexington, S.C., was one of those randomly added friends. On Thursday, he started getting messages from a half dozen reporters—including me—asking for information about Roof, whom he knew nothing about, he told Fusion. He then referred them to Wareing, who told reporters various stories about Roof’s fictitious Tumblr account but claimed not to have any proof of the account's existence.
According to email correspondence between Wareing and Robles, which Wareing forwarded to Fusion, the teen never gave Robles a link to the imaginary Tumblr, which he said Roof had deleted, nor any screenshots or other proof that blog ever existed.
The Times apparently decided to publish the Tumblr anecdote anyway. The Wareing section was cited by New York magazine's Daily Intel blog and reprinted on the website of the Boston Globe, among other newspapers. The Globe has since removed that section from its story, but it currently shows up in Google search archives and Wareing posted another screenshot on his blog.
"We removed those paragraphs as soon as we had reason to doubt them, and they would have been removed under any circumstances and replaced by newer reporting," Times Deputy National Editor Peter Applebome told Fusion in an email statement. "We're still reviewing the matter and will post an editor's note to run with the story online."
Robles referred requests for comment to her editor. But she did tweet this on Saturday:
Robles has twice been part of a team that won the Pulitzer prize; her reporting has helped overturn multiple wrongful convictions. She was working on a fast-moving, stressful story: According to NewsDiffs, Robles wrote almost a dozen versions of the Roof manifesto article over about twelve hours.
But she was tricked by a couple of teenagers who took advantage of the media's hunger for new information about the shooter and our reliance on Facebook as a communication tool. “People could think that this was a joke or a lark, but it wasn’t,” Wareing told Fusion in a Skype interview. “Our ultimate goal of this was to see if a reporter would publish something that was completely untrue.”
Ironically, Wareing says that, even as he told multiple reporters false stories during a national tragedy, he wants to be a journalist himself when he grows up. “I always wanted to do that,” he said. “I don’t want to be someone who reports complete lies… this makes me want to try harder to make a better change in reporting.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.