Next time you make out a Match.com page or an Amazon Wishlist, bear in mind that if you end up in a news event, the media in all likelihood could use this information in its reporting.
As is now typical in the news, such as the so-called Muslim murders in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last night, the media has been reporting on what supposedly is the Facebook page of Craig Stephen Hicks. Hicks is charged with the first-degree murders of the three, Dean Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
But the Daily Dot, which describes itself as “the latest news, opinion and in-depth reporting from around the Internet,” took the risky unverified online approach a step further, and reported on an Amazon Wishlist that the Daily Dot thinks belongs to Hicks. The sitereported:
“An Amazon wishlist reportedly belonging to Hicks includes numerous other combat supplies, including a rifle scope, tactical blades, and a camouflage ghillie suit, along with more everyday items like Dragon Age: Inquisition and the Val Kilmer crime thriller The Salton Sea.”
iMediaEthics asked the Daily Dot why it included the alleged Amazon Wishlist and what it added to the reporting on the shootings. Austin Powell, the managing editor for the Daily Dot, told iMediEtics by e-mail that the Amazon Wishlist might help provide “insights into [suspect Hicks’] personality and personal history.”
“Just as the posts and interests of an individual on Facebook can potentially reveal insights into their personality and personal history, so to can other aspects of one’s online activity, including but not limited to Amazon wish lists,” he told iMediaEthics by e-mail. “This is a common practice,” Powell argued, writing that “The FBI investigates the library records of suspected terrorists, for example.”
“It’s important to not draw conclusions from such findings—potential correlation does not imply causation—and as an organization, that’s a distinction we always attempt to emphasize,” Powell added. “In this particular instance, that the wish list contains guns accessories, especially in light of the suspects apparent Facebook posts, is newsworthy.”
Powell said that the Daily Dot found the Amazon Wishlist via freelance writer Omar Ghabra’s tweet. “A lot of the work on the alleged shooter’s online trail came from a freelance writer named Omar Ghabra,” Powell wrote. “He was among the first to find the Facebook page and ran a background check on the suspect.”
Ghabra’s tweet about the Amazon Wishlist is below.
— Omar Ghabra (@omarghabra) February 11, 2015
The Daily Dot has updated its story to include more information about where it got the Amazon Wishlist, Powell told iMediaEthics. The update reads: “Update 12:10pm CT, Feb. 11: This report has been updated for clarity and to provide additional attribution.”
The rest of the Daily Dot story “Chapel Hill shooter’s apparent Facebook page showed his extreme anti-religious attitudes,” relies on a Facebook page that may or may not have been the actual Facebook for the Chapel Hill suspect. The page hasn’t been confirmed as the suspect’s, not that that has stopped media from using it as a source in reporting on it.
The Daily Dot wrote: “A Facebook page apparently belonging to the alleged Chapel Hill shooter indicates that he may have been motivated by anti-religious sentiment when he committed what many are calling a hate crime.”
iMediaEthics asked how the Daily Dot attempted to verify that both the Amazon Wishlist and the Facebook page belong to the suspect.
“We included multiple caveats in the reporting making clear that the Facebook page and wish list were not authenticated,” the Daily Dot’s Powell wrote. “That said, the photos posted to the Facebook page match the publicly released mugshot without a reasonable doubt. We also found a note posted in 2012 where he included his middle name—which matched that of the accused shooter.”
Further, he pointed out that the Facebook page said the account holder attended Durham Technical College, which is near Chapel Hill.
Powell added that the Daily Dot has contacted Amazon and Facebook for verification. “We now have requests for comment out to Amazon and Facebook, but per their company policies, it is highly unlikely they would comment on a user’s account,” Powell wrote.
Powell further commented to iMediaEthics: “We take issues of privacy, transparency, and authenticity seriously. As a company, we strive to make it clear what we are able to confirm, what we are not, and the efforts that we’ve made. We’ll continue to research this story and will update when appropriate. ”
iMediaEthics has left a message with the Chapel Hill Police Department for more information.
Was Cannibal Cop’s alleged Match.com Page newsworthy?
The so-called Cannibal Cop, Gilberto Valle, allegedly set up a Match.com page listing “cooking” as a hobby, the New York Post reported last month.
Valle, a former NYPD police officer, was arrested and convicted “in a bizarre plot to kidnap, torture, kill and eat women,” the New York Times reported March 12, 2013. His conviction was overturned last summer with U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe noting that “no one was kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place and no real world non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone,” according to Newsday.
Valle’s conviction for misusing an NYPD database was upheld, Newsday added.
When asked by the Post about the Match.com page, Valle said he didn’t “know anything about it,” but that didn’t stop the Post from reporting on it.
“‘Cannibal Cop’ cooks up online dating profile,'” the Post‘s “exclusive” Jan. 21 story was headlined.
Jezebel questioned the purported dating site page as probably bogus.
“‘Cannibal Cop’ Gilberto Valle’s Match.com Profile Seems Fake as Hell” Jezebel wrote, noting that it previously got a tip that Valle was on OkCupid but OkCupid said the account was a “fake” and “clearly a hoax.”
Match.com later deleted the page purported to belong to Valle, New York Magazine reported. “We received a number of complaints about this profile, alerting us to its existence, and have removed it from our site,” Match.com told New York.
Back in March 2013, the Post faked its front-page photo to show Valle dressed as a chef holding a ladle over a soup pot. The Post did include a disclosure in print that the image was a “Post Photo Composite” but this was contained in tiny print and hard to see, as iMediaEthics reported at the time.
UPDATED: 2/11/2015 3:51 pm EST With information from Daily Dot