Media run with unconfirmed report tying Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz to white nationalist group

The Associated Press inaccurately reported that Florida high school massacre suspect Nikolas Cruz was “confirmed” to be a member of a white nationalist group – but it appears the news organization was duped by attention-seeking trolls.

Cruz reportedly has confessed to police that he killed 17 people when he opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day. Republic of Florida leader Jordan Jereb reportedly told the AP that Cruz was a member of his white nationalist militia and even participated in paramilitary drills.

“Leader of white nationalist group has confirmed suspect in Florida school shooting was member of his organization,” the AP tweeted on Thursday.

A few minutes later the AP sent another tweet, downplaying the language and changing “leader of white nationalist group has confirmed” to "leader of a white nationalist militia says” that Cruz was a member. The story attached to the second tweet noted that a law enforcement official told the AP that he was unaware of ties between Cruz and the white supremacist group. The first tweet was retweeted more than 40,000 times and liked by more than 50,000 users, while the clarification was only retweeted 8,000 times and liked by less than 7,000 users.

Media Research Center contributing editor Tom Blumer wrote that the AP went to “great excuse-making lengths” after it “abandoned skepticism” when contacted by Jereb.

“It's reasonable to ask if what supposedly fooled them was really narrative-fitting information that was too convenient to conscientiously check,” Blumer wrote.

Jereb eventually claimed on social media that there was a "misunderstanding," according to Politico

“On online forums and Twitter, trolls and white nationalists gloated at the disinformation they had sowed,” Politico reported. 

The AP was not the only news organization to be fooled. ABC ‘s story led by stating, “The suspect in the Florida school shooting was a member of a white nationalist group,” while the Daily Beast reported Cruz was a member of a “white separatist paramilitary proto-fascist organization.” Fox News Channel briefly posted the story, citing The Associated Press.

“I know with certainty he had something to do with us,” Jereb told the Miami Herald, which reported that ”alt-right backlash” caused Jereb to eventually “back off the claim and blame the media.”  

The Herald said Jereb’s group is “known for seeking publicity” and that he would not respond to request for comment once backing off the claims.

Think Progress pointed out that ABC News reported it talked to three of Cruz’s former classmates, who said he was part of the group. However, ABC’s article has apparently been removed from its website and story links direct users to the homepage. Politico’s piece hints that online trolls fooled ABC reporters over social media. 

“It's fair to ask whether AP and other media outlets unskeptically reported what they did because they wanted to believe it.”

- Tom Blumer, of the Media Research Center

A spokesperson for ABC News declined to comment when reached by Politico on “how its reporters vetted the identities of these purported acquaintances” of Cruz. 

ABC did not immediately respond to request for clarification. 

A variety of websites and news organizations were forced to issue corrections or clarifications. PBS added an editor’s note blaming the AP for its misleading headline, while the Denver Post published a story citing the AP headline, “Florida school shooting suspect belonged to white nationalist group.”

Politico published a piece, “How white nationalists fooled the media about Florida shooter,” that blames “misrepresentations by a white nationalist leader and coordinated efforts by Internet trolls” on the gaffe.  

“That the false air of certainty over Cruz's ties remained prevalent for so long is largely due to how the AP buried contrary information deep in one of its subsequent longer dispatches while deleting any reference to it without recognizing its erroneous original reporting in another,” Blumer wrote. 

Politico’s Shawn Musgrave wrote that “the rumor appears to have been perpetrated by white nationalist trolls” themselves.

“AP spoke with the leader of Republic of Florida, who said Cruz was a member of his group and had participated in exercises in Tallahassee. In the course of continued reporting, police and other groups were not able to confirm Cruz’s association with the white nationalist militia, and that is what is reflected on the wire,” an AP spokesperson told Politico. 

Blumer wrote, “It's fair to ask whether AP and other media outlets unskeptically reported what they did because they wanted to believe it.”

Brian Flood covers the media for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter at @briansflood.