The Gold Star widow became the face of a viral hoax as she said her final goodbyes to her slain husband.
A Facebook post purporting to show the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson criticizing Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) went viral among pro-Trump Twitter users over the weekend, with one version of the tweet amassing nearly 8,000 retweets and 10,000 likes between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.
The only problem? It’s fake.
Myeshia Johnson, whose husband was killed in an ISIS-led ambush in Niger earlier this month, confirmed to ABC News on Sunday that she didn’t write the Facebook post, which claims to show her accusing Rep. Wilson of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.
Rep. Wilson was Johnson’s longtime mentor and has served as an advocate for the family in the aftermath of his death on October 4. She was in the car with the family when Trump called to offer his condolences to Johnson’s widow and remind her that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” After Wilson criticized the insensitive remark, Trump and other White House officials launched an all-out smear campaign against the congresswoman and accused her of lying about the call (an allegation that was later refuted by Johnson’s mother).
The now-debunked Facebook post used Myeshia Johnson’s identity to continue these attacks, purporting to show the Gold Star widow condemning Rep. Wilson (a “so-called politician”) for using her husband’s death “as a political platform.” The post appears to be designed to serve a political agenda by providing cover for Trump and attempting to discredit and undermine Rep. Wilson.
The fake post was then shared on Twitter, where it quickly gained traction and began circulating among pro-Trump users. Some tweets (like this one and this one) only amassed a few hundred retweets and likes, while others were retweeted and liked by thousands of users between Friday afternoon and late Saturday evening.
Notably, the fake Facebook post took on a much more vitriolic tone on Twitter, with each user adding their own commentary attacking Rep. Wilson. One user referred to the congresswoman as a “cowboy lawmaker” and told her to “burn in hell.” A second tweet demanded that the lawmaker “Resign NOW” and apologize to Trump. The user also encouraged others to retweet the post and join “Support45.com.” A third user called Rep. Wilson a “rodeo clown” and used the fake Facebook post as ‘proof’ that “she lied about the whole thing.” In the same tweet, he also questioned why a widow should have to “set the record straight as she grieves” — which is exactly what Myeshia Johnson had to do in response to the fabricated post.
True Believers: A Cautionary Tale
While this is a particularly egregious case given the circumstances, the dynamics are nothing new. Misinformation and disinformation are shared on social media everyday, and all of us have unwittingly shared incorrect or misleading information at one point or another. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to better defend ourselves from hoaxes like this one.
Often, the spread of misinformation could be nipped in the bud if we all paused for a moment and asked ourselves a simple question before passing along a social media post or news story: Does this make sense?
In this case, the answer to that question is no.
First of all, while the Facebook post is dated October 17 (the same day Trump made the phone call mentioned in the post), the time listed on the post (3:27 p.m.) is more than an hour before Trump even made the call at 4:45 p.m. Eastern time. Unless you believe in time travel, it’s kind of hard to explain how someone could be writing about the fallout from a phone call before that call had even taken place.
The square profile picture in the corner of the Facebook post is another giveaway. In August, Facebook implemented an update to their platform that automatically changed the shape of user’s profile pictures (as they appear on Facebook’s newsfeed) from square to round. Facebook posts after August 2017 would reflect that change.
Cognitive biases like motivated reasoning, identity-protective cognition, and confirmation bias make us less skeptical (so, more accepting) of information that aligns with our preexisting beliefs and ideas, and more dismissive of information that contradicts our worldview.
Beyond the logistical elements of the post, there’s also the question of why users were sharing a screenshot (as opposed to a link), and who/where the initial screenshot came from. In this case, when the people sharing the hoax on Twitter were asked by other users about the original Facebook post, most said Myeshia Johnson had activated Facebook’s privacy settings and closed her page to the public right after posting the now-debunked message. Think about that: if you wanted to get information out to the public, would you lock down your Facebook page right after posting the information? And if you didn’t want the information to be made public, would you post it on your public Facebook page in the first place?
Additionally, the information contained in the post contradicts all other publicly available information, including statements made by Myeshia Johnson. That should be a red flag on its own, but it becomes even more suspicious in context. This story has been dominating headlines for days; if one of the main people involved suddenly dropped a bombshell like this, do you really think you’d find out about it from an unknown account tweeting a screenshot of a Facebook post?
Finally, it’s important to consider why we’re sharing information and how that may influence our evaluation of its veracity. Cognitive biases like motivated reasoning, identity-protective cognition, and confirmation bias make us less skeptical (so, more accepting) of information that aligns with our preexisting beliefs and ideas, and more dismissive of information that contradicts our worldview. As a result, we’re more vulnerable to falling for misinformation if it tells us what we want to believe or validates a conclusion that we’ve already arrived upon.
“Who cares [if it’s true]?”
The influence of cognitive biases was very apparent in the responses to and from the users who tweeted the fake Facebook post. While many users did question the veracity of the post (a pleasant surprise!), the people who initially tweeted it were not receptive to such questioning.
As you can see in the exchanges below, this user (whose initial post had over 7,500 retweets and more than 9,000 likes) appeared to be quite motivated to believe the content of the false post, saying that he had “tested” it for cut and paste (“It’s not cut and paste”), and even telling other users to stop challenging his assertions. He has since removed the initial post, after multiple reporters informed him that it was fabricated.
In other instances, users attempted to shift the burden of proof by telling their questioners it was up to them to prove that the post was a hoax, rather than the other way around.
One user even unwittingly verbalized their confirmation bias, tweeting that the quote in the fake Facebook post “sounds more like I thought would have been said.”
In other exchanges, you can see the back-and-forth between commenters trying to fact-check the initial post and others pushing back on them, with one user even asking, “who cares [if the post is true]?”
Other commenters were clearly more interested in smearing Rep. Wilson’s character than evaluating the accuracy of the information in front of them. One user, who claimed that the post vindicated Trump, called Rep. Wilson “disgusting” for trying to “make POTUS look bad.” Another commenter said she was “sick of the lies” about Trump, adding: “I want Frederica [Wilson] and her fxcking hats to go down in flames.”
Obviously, someone intentionally created the fake Facebook post that ended up on Twitter, but the thousands of people who retweeted and liked the hoax almost certainly did so unwittingly. This demonstrate how rational decision-making can be overpowered by preconceived notions and deeply held beliefs, including ideological and political views. As a result, people are less skeptical of information that aligns with what they want to hear, leaving them vulnerable to hoaxes, misinformation, and even divisive foreign propaganda.