March 20, 2016

FROM THE EDITOR: Credibility, Anonymity and Legitimacy

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On Friday, The Sun published a news story online titled “Aided by White Nationalist Groups, Union of White Cornell Students to Release Demands, Host March” detailing an interview with two anonymous people claiming to be members of the Union of White Cornell Students and white nationalist Andrew Auernheimer.

While the legitimacy and scope of the Union of White Cornell Students remains unclear, The Sun continues to actively investigate this organization. Moving forward, The Sun refuses to continue reporting on this group until its members’ identities are verified.

We feel that we cannot continue dignifying this group’s requests for anonymity as its members prepare to host a speaker series and a white students march, continue to share inflammatory and divisive aims and become more involved on-campus. Especially as the Union of White Cornell Students plans to release a list of demands to the Cornell administration soon, it will become impossible for us to produce accurate reporting on the union’s intentions and motivations if its members refuse to provide us with their identities.

Many readers have rightly questioned whether the Union of White Cornell Students is a hoax, following a chain of 31 fake white student unions created in November. These concerns are valid, especially since white supremacist website The Daily Stormer was involved in the creation of the hoax unions and appears to be providing logistical and financial support to the Union of White Cornell students. However, several key differences distinguish the Cornell union from previous hoaxes.

In a span of four days from Nov. 19 to Nov. 23, at least 30 Facebook pages surfaced, claiming to be white student unions at various college campuses. On Nov. 21, Andrew Anglin, editor of The Daily Stormer, encouraged readers to make Facebook pages even if they did not attend the colleges. These pages shared identical statements of purpose, and several were taken down hours or days after creation. In contrast to these short-lived hoaxes, the Union of White Cornell Students was created nearly three months after Anglin’s post, has been consistently active since March 2 and has shared Cornell-specific positions and demands.

There remain many questions regarding this union. We are committed to producing the strongest stories possible, and using anonymous sources risks the quality and credibility of our reporting. We recognize the importance of taking a firm stance on the use of anonymous sources, which remains an important and contentious issue for all papers. Just last week, The New York Times instituted a stricter policy on the use of anonymous sources. Like The Times, we place utmost importance on maintaining our credibility and our reader’s trust, and we will continue doing so with our future coverage.

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any concerns at editor@cornellsun.com.

—Sofia Hu ’17, editor in chief

6 thoughts on “FROM THE EDITOR: Credibility, Anonymity and Legitimacy

  1. The Sun seems to have a number of errors to regret.

    The Sun should be objective, but saying “we cannot continue dignifying” and declaring them “inflammatory” makes the Sun’s bias clear. Perhaps if they were literally Hitler, it would be forgivable for a newspaper to use such subjectivity, but the most controversial thing said in the interview was that BSU should be disbanded. Probably not extreme enough to warrant bias in what should be objective journalism.

    Next the Sun seems to be conflating anonymity and verification. If sources request anonymity, they can be anonymous to the public but the Sun can verify their identities. However the Sun is made up of nonsalaried students; sources would face a significant risk of being identified through either sloppiness or gossip. Still, the Sun must verify facts when the exact identities are not important. They did not in this case. The Sun identified the sources as Cornell students in the article as if it was fact, but actually they do not seem to have verified that (there are ways to do so without revealing everything). The only fact that seems to be confirmed is that one source called from a particular area code and that a famous internet troll was involved. There never should have been a story in the first place.

    However do not make this discourage The Sun from allowing anonymous content. If the facts of the news story can be verified and the exact identity does not matter, it should be allowed. If an anonymous letter to the editor is sent, it could be published if it does not matter who wrote it, does not contain potentially libelous claims, and is relevant. The Sun’s opinion page would have much more diverse opinions if they would be more welcoming to anonymous authors. If the purpose is to propose ideas, and not to claim facts, and the content is as interesting and insightful as the regular columnists, then there is no reason not to publish it anonymously (it could have been computer generated by artificial intelligence for all we care). Just think about how vilified Lee Bender was last semester for his signed letter (whether you agree with him or not) and we can understand how opinions may be stifled by hostility to anonymity. This does not mean that trolls should automatically be published, but some flexibility is needed.

    • Very well said, Jose. Sometimes anonymity of sources is absolutely required. For example, if the Sun were to do a story on battered women, some of their sources may understandably want to tell their stories only if they can remain anonymous.

      Or perhaps the Sun may want to do an interview with a student with relatives in North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, but they may not want to be identified because doing so could jeopardize their relatives.

      Or maybe they might not want their names associated with the story because they feel their identities would distract from the message they are trying to convey. Maybe this is why James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay decided to publish the Federalist Papers anonymously. Whatever the reason, their anonymity did not diminish the importance of their work.

      However, the identity of the “students” in the White Supremacist story is absolutely central to this story. The status of these individuals as Cornell students should have been verified before running the story.

      I don’t think we should be too harsh on Sofia Hu and Pheobe Keller for their mistake. This was a difficult story to deal with. I imagine many in their positions would have made the same mistake. I’m sure they will learn from their error and be better reporters in the future because of this.

  2. This editor’s note expresses warranted skepticism about the alleged UWCS. Why does the concurrent issue of the print Sun carry the same story at the top of page 1? That marginally skeptical news story is virtually unchanged from its Friday posting in spite of being challenged and extended by several of the 40+ comments it’s drawn since posting? The news article should reflect the same level of skepticism. Also, it’s interesting to note that the story no longer appears on the opening screen of the Sun website.

  3. For those who have not read the comments on the original story– “the legitimacy and scope of the Union of White Cornell Student” remains more than a little unclear. I think it was debunked yesterday afternoon to the extent where we should dismiss it unless new, SOLID evidence gives us reason to reconsider. Lish was the first to seriously call this into question with the following post.

    Lish on March 19, 2016 at 1:21 pm said:

    http://www.snopes.com/2015/11/24/white-student-union-facebook-hoax/

    Also, look at their page… they alternately support Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They also call their commenters things like “literally Hitler.” The evidence says you’re being trolled.
    If you can’t verify their identities as Cornell Students, you shouldn’t have run this piece, and given that this is a known prank occurring at other schools, you should have been even more incredulous.

    ————————————————————————————————-

    Then I followed this up a couple of hours later.

    Anonymous on March 19, 2016 at 3:57 pm said:
    This has all the earmarks of being an elaborate hoax or social experiment. First, there is this.

    “The students also said that the group originally tried to work with student organizations to organize a speaker series, claiming that they have previously and unsuccessfully attempted to convince the International Students Union to sponsor journalist Milo Yiannopolous.

    ISU has refuted this claim, saying that the members of their executive board have not had any contact with the Union of White Cornell Students”

    Then there is the fact that the only one identified associated with this movement is Weev. Weev is a hacker extraordinaire and a well-known internet troll. Trolls often say or do outrageous things just to watch how people react (or overreact) for no reason other than for the lulz. (laughs). It is hard to know, when dealing with a known troll, if he is serious about any of things he says or if he’s just pushing people’s buttons just to stir things up so he can watch mayhem ensue.

    Weev does indeed at least pretend to be a White racist online. But a Slate article entitled “Famous Troll Targets Activists With White-Supremacist Promoted Tweets” suggests that MAYBE, MAYBE this is all an act and he is just stirring things up for laughs. Here is an excerpt from the article by Jacob Brogan
    ——————————————————————————————————-
    “Twitter has an advertising problem, but despite disappointing quarterly earnings reports and frustrated investors, it’s not what you might think. Earlier this week, a handful of users were confronted with a tweet proclaiming that “Whites need to stand up for one another and defend ourselves from violence and discrimination.” It might have been possible to dismiss this message—to treat it as a mere product of Twitter’s culture of offense, to block the user, to move on—were this not a promoted tweet. Someone had paid to ensure that this message would show up in users’ feeds. And that meant Twitter was making money from its presence.

    Making money, sure, but not much money, as it turned out. The offending tweet was the brainchild of self-proclaimed hacker Andrew Auernheimer, who goes by the nom de troll “weev.” As he explains in a Storify post, Auernheimer realized that it was possible to promote tweets to specific groups of users. By way of example, he notes, “You can … choose to display ads to followers of specific users, like @Jezebel or @feministing.” This system is designed to help advertisers precisely target their campaigns at those most likely to respond to their messages. In Auernheimer’s case, this meant aiming at individuals most likely to be offended by his “lulzy” “white survival” message.
    —————————————————————————————————————————–
    The other two anonymous people in contact with the Sun claim they are students, but we have seen no proof of this. They could just as easily be outside agitators.

    And then there is the challenge that all these White Nationalists students will face (that is, if they exist) when executing their plans for a march. How will they march when they are so obsessed with maintaining their anonymity? If they march without masks on then they are likely to be recognized and will lose their anonymity. If they wear masks, then how will they prove they are students and not outside agitators? Unless they PROVE they are students then no one will pay attention to their demands. (And even if they do prove they are students, it is questionable if anyone will take their demands seriously). Moreover, Cornell Police will have every right to demand to see their IDs. If they don’t present their IDs they can be kicked off campus. Perhaps they will prove to Cornell Police that they are students, but that will require them to trust that Police will not leak their information to the public. Perhaps there are laws that would prevent the police from leaking that information, but I’m not an expert in this area.

    However, even if there ARE such laws to prevent such a leak, what is to prevent the police from writing up a report naming the students behind the masks? And what is to prevent a rogue officer from posting the report anonymously on the internet? What is to prevent the police from claiming they had nothing to do with it and that their computers were hacked? Now, I think this scenario is HIGHLY unlikely. I think the Cornell Police have far more integrity than that. But I could be wrong. Will those who want to remain anonymous be willing to take that risk?

    I suggest that people not get too worked up about this and treat this as nothing more than a hoax or social experiment until there is hard evidence otherwise. Or, as the famous internet saying goes, DON’T FEED THE TROLLS!

  4. Pingback: Cornell Daily Sun: We Will Not Report About What Is Currently on Our Front Page | The Cornell Review

  5. Weev, the troll behind all this, has a Very colorful history. I suggest you google “Weev know your meme”. Or go to knowyourmeme.com and search for Weev. He has a VERY colorful history that most people will find shocking. Given his history, it is INCREDIBLY difficult to believe this is anything but a hoax, and people are falling for it. I bet he’s getting his kicks out of this.

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