How 'fake news' and the manipulation of facts turned a small US town upside down

When a young girl was filmed in a sex act with two boys in a town in Idaho, an anti-immigrant movement co-opted the community’s outrage to their cause, writes Caitlin Dickerson

How 'fake news' and the manipulation of facts turned a small US town upside down

ON a Tuesday morning in June 2016, Nathan Brown, a reporter for The Times-News, the local paper in Twin Falls, Idaho, strolled into the office and cleared off a spot for his coffee cup amid the documents and notebooks piled on his desk.

His first order of business was an article about a city council meeting from the night before, which he hadn’t attended. Brown pulled up a recording of the proceedings and began punching out notes for his weekly article.

Because most governing in Twin Falls is done by a city manager, these meetings tend to deal with trivial subjects such as lawn-watering and potholes, but Brown could tell immediately this one was different.

“We have been made aware of a situation,” said the first speaker, an older man with a scraggly white beard who had hobbled up to the lectern. “An alleged assault of a minor child and we can’t get any information on it. Apparently, it’s been indicated that the perpetrators were foreign Muslim youth that conducted this — I guess it was a rape.”

Brown recognised the man as Terry Edwards. About a year earlier, after The Times-News reported that Syrian refugees would very likely be resettled in Twin Falls, Edwards joined a movement to shut the resettlement programme down.

After he finished watching the video, Brown called the police chief, Craig Kingsbury, to get more information about the case. Kingsbury said that he couldn’t discuss it and that the police reports were sealed because minors were involved.

Brown made a couple phone calls — to the mayor and to his colleague at the paper who covers crime. He pieced together that, 12 days earlier, three children had been discovered partly clothed inside a shared laundry room at the apartment complex where they lived.

There were two boys, aged seven and 10, and a five-year-old girl. The younger boy was accused of attempting some kind of sex act with the girl, and the 10-year-old had used a mobile borrowed from his older brother to record it.

The girl was American and, like most people in Twin Falls, white. The boys were refugees; Brown wasn’t sure from where.

Local reporter Nathan Brown
Local reporter Nathan Brown

That weekend, Brown was on his way to see a movie when he received a Facebook message from Jim Dalos Jr, a 52-year-old known to Twin Falls journalists and police as Scanner Man. He lives at the apartment complex, Fawnbrook, where the laundry-room incident occurred.

Dalos told Brown he had seen the police around Fawnbrook and that the victim’s mother told him that the boys had been arrested. He also pointed Brown to a couple of Facebook groups that were created in response to the incident.

Brown scrolled through them on his mobile and saw links flying back and forth with articles that said that the little girl had been gang-raped at knife point, that the perpetrators were Syrian refugees, and that their fathers had celebrated with them afterward by giving them high fives.

The stories also claimed that the city council and the police department were conspiring to bury the crime.

Over the weekend, Brown ploughed through his daily packs of cigarettes as he watched hundreds, then thousands, of people joining the groups.

The details of the Fawnbrook case, as it became known, were still unclear to Brown, but he was skeptical of what he was reading.

For one thing, he knew from his own previous reporting that no Syrians had been resettled in Twin Falls. He woke up early on Monday to get a head start on clarifying things as much as possible in order to write a follow-up article.

Before he got into the office, a friend texted him, telling him to check the Drudge Report. At the top, a headline screamed: “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.”

As the only city of any size for 100 miles in any direction, Twin Falls serves as a modest hub within southern Idaho’s vast agricultural sprawl. Its population of about 45,000 nearly doubles each day as people travel there to work, primarily in the thriving agribusinesses.

The wealth of easy-to-find, low-skilled jobs made Twin Falls attractive as a place for resettling refugees, and they began arriving in the 1980s, at that time mostly from Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. Nearly 2,500 refugees have moved to the town over the years.

Most Twin Falls residents are churchgoing, and about half of those are Mormons. Over the past decade and a half, as conflict spread across North Africa and the Middle East, Twin Falls started to resettle larger numbers of refugees with darker skin who follow an unfamiliar religion — two things that make it difficult to blend into a town that is 80% white.

On a national scale, an ascendant network of anti-Muslim activists and provocateurs has exploited the fears brought on by these changes, finding a platform and a receptive audience online.

The narrative they espouse — on blogs with names such as Jihad Watch — is that America, currently 1% Muslim, is under an Islamic invasion. Central to the worldview of these bloggers is that Muslims have a propensity toward sexual violence.

What happened in Twin Falls was sadly somewhat commonplace, but not in the way the activists believed. The local police department investigates sex crimes on a weekly basis, and, in about half a dozen of those that proceed to court each year, the victims and the accused are both minors.

“If it’s younger kids, it’s them being curious,” JR Paredez, the lead investigator on the case, explained.

Two weeks after the incident, the boys were charged with lewd and lascivious behaviour against a minor. (The 14-year-old who lent his mobile to the boys was initially charged with the same crime. He was not present in the laundry room, and his charge was eventually reduced to make him an accessory.)

In Idaho, this statute applies to physical contact “done with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying the lust or passions or sexual desires of such person, such minor child, or third party.”

Paredez said that the mobile video made clear what specifically had happened between the children, but that he couldn’t show it to the reporters who asked him about it, because doing so would have constituted criminal distribution of child pornography.

He called most of the details that he read about the case on the internet “100% false, like not even close to being accurate”. The family of the accused declined to comment.

As more time passed without a solid account of what happened in the laundry room, lurid rumours continued to surface online and came to dominate conversations in shops and at school events. And while the city council members did not have control over the case, the bloggers who wrote about it placed much of the blame on them.

On the Monday when Twin Falls was the top story on Drudge, the city council held another weekly meeting. Normally only a handful of people attend, and Brown is one of the few reporters among them.

But that night, the auditorium filled until there was standing room only, and television news crews appeared from Boise and other nearby cities. When it came time for public comments, one man got up and praised the city’s handling of the case, followed by more than a dozen others who laid into the council members.

Edwards handed each of them a small copy of the US Constitution and told them to do their jobs. A woman named Vicky Davis, her hair in a satiny white bob, stood up and proclaimed that Islam had declared jihad on America.

“They are not compatible with our culture,” she said. “They hate us. They don’t want to be Americans. They don’t want to assimilate. What do you need to see? What more proof do you need?”

Chief Kingsbury read from a statement while fumbling with a thicket of microphones piled onto the lectern by visiting reporters. In between exasperated breaths, he explained why he could not disclose the details of the incident but said that he could address some of the misinformation that was spreading online.

There was no evidence of a knife, he said, or of celebrations afterward, or of a cover-up, and no Syrians were involved: The boys were from Sudan and Iraq.

“I’m a kid who grew up in Idaho,” he said. “Law enforcement takes these types of allegations very seriously. However, we can’t act on them within an hour. It’s not like a crime show.”

He told the audience that the boys had been arrested, to applause.

But online, Kingsbury’s words only inflamed activists more. Just after midnight, someone posted his work email address on Jihad Watch, along with those of the council members and the mayor.

A commenter on another website called The Muslim Issue posted the phone numbers and email addresses for the town’s government officials, the head of the refugee-resettlement centre, and some administrators at the college, which runs the refugee resettlement programme.

From there, the information spread to more blogs and to the comments sections of far-right news outlets with massive audiences.

The Twins Falls story aligned perfectly with the ideology that Stephen Bannon, then the head of Breitbart News, had been developing for years, about the havoc brought on by unchecked immigration and Islamism, all of it backed by big- business interests and establishment politicians.

Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News helped to whip up the anti-Syrian feeling in a small town in Idaho, despite no refugees from that country being resettled there.
Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News helped to whip up the anti-Syrian feeling in a small town in Idaho, despite no refugees from that country being resettled there.

Bannon latched onto the Fawnbrook case and used his influence to expand its reach.

During the weeks leading up to his appointment in August 2016 to lead Donald Trump’s campaign for president, Twin Falls was a daily topic of discussion on Bannon’s national radio show, where he called it “the beating heart” of all that the coming presidential election was about.

He sent his lead investigative reporter, Lee Stranahan, to the town to investigate the case, boasting to his audience that Stranahan was a “pit bull” of a reporter. “We’re going to let him off the chain,” he said.

Lee Stranahan, former reporter with Breitbart News
Lee Stranahan, former reporter with Breitbart News

Stranahan, then 50, arrived in Idaho in August, after covering the national party conventions. The sealed nature of the case prevented any journalist from an exhaustive examination, and the accused and the victim’s families refused to speak to the mainstream media.

But Stranahan thrived in the absence of facts. He was granted one of the few interviews with the victim’s family, but his account of the crime offered little more information than others’ had — and far more inaccuracies, according to the police and the county prosecutor.

He described it as a “horrific gang rape” and wrote graphic details about the incident, which the Twin Falls Police say are untrue.

On Breitbart radio, Stranahan openly wondered whether Shawn Barigar, the mayor, was “a big, you know, Shariah supporter”.

Shawn Barigar, mayor of Twin Falls.
Shawn Barigar, mayor of Twin Falls.

Stranahan says his Breitbart editors sent him to Twin Falls to report on the “Muslim takeover” of the town. (Breitbart denies this and says it’s “absurd”.)

But he soon became enamoured of a grander theory about what was happening in southern Idaho: “Globalism”. He wrote that local businesses received government kickbacks for employing foreigners instead of Americans. (Stranahan did not cite any evidence of this, and it is untrue, according to the Department of Labor.)

And he often referred to a Syrian refugee crisis, though no Syrians were ever resettled there. Then, to bring the story full circle, he claimed these Muslim refugees were being used to replace American workers and that the government, big business, and law enforcement were either conspiring to conceal the sex assault case or intentionally looking the other way, in order to keep the machine turning.

Later, it turned out that fake Facebook accounts linked to the Russian government helped to spread stories about Twin Falls and even organised one of the rallies there.

The event was also poorly attended but is the first known Russian attempt to spark a demonstration on American soil.

Stranahan eventually quit his job at Breitbart, which he said was being mismanaged in Bannon’s absence. He is now based in Washington, and hosts a drive-time FM radio show with Sputnik, a state-run Russian news outlet.

During our handful of conversations over the past year, each one lasting several hours, he expressed no contrition about the reporting he did in Twin Falls, though many of the conclusions that he drew on the radio and online have been debunked.

Many of the outlets that covered the Fawnbrook case, including Breitbart, made only minor tweaks to their stories or did nothing at all. The falsehoods that Stranahan and other reporters wrote still rise to the top of a Google search for the city.

In our discussions, Stranahan struck me as passionate about his stories; not about their veracity but about the freedom he and the critics of refugee resettlement should have to speculate as they wanted without being belittled by the fact-mongering mainstream.

When I reached him by phone in June, he told me he was planning to travel back to Idaho for more reporting on Fawnbrook, now that he was no longer constrained by his editors at Breitbart.

I started to ask why anyone should be allowed to publish false information for the express purpose of angering their audience and pushing them further away from those with whom they disagree, but Stranahan cut me off.

“Hey, I’m walking into the White House right now,” he said. He had just arrived for a press briefing with the president’s spokesman. “Let me call you back.”

This April, the boys accused in the Fawnbrook case admitted guilt — the juvenile court equivalent to pleading guilty — and were sentenced in June.

The judge prohibited city officials from commenting on the outcome of the trial, but juvenile justice experts told me that the boys would most likely be placed on probation and required to attend mandatory therapy to correct their behaviour.

Their sentencing, which leaked to the public through the same blogs that initially covered the case, sparked another barrage of attacks against city officials, a year after the initial onslaught.

Part of the reason a fear of Islam has persisted in Twin Falls is because the local leadership refused to defuse it, according to Matt Christensen, 36, the editor of The Times-News.

While Brown wrote articles that sorted out the truth about the Fawnbrook case, Christensen was publishing commentary that castigated the people who were spreading falsehoods.

He told me that he had closed-door meetings with city officials, in which he asked them to write guest editorials doing the same, but none of them did.

Christensen suspected that they were afraid of one of the most reliable political dangers in the region; being outflanked on the right is the quickest way to lose your job.

The refugee resettlement centre received a dramatic increase in donations from local residents during the last year. But those in the town who support the programme have often been drowned out by the relatively smaller, but louder, group of activists who oppose it.

Brown said he expected to see an anti-Shariah bill introduced in the US State Legislature when the next session starts in 2018.

“There are a lot of people who feel like society is changing too quickly, like the community is changing too quickly,” he told me.

“And who view other people not like them or who don’t speak their language as a threat or a sign that their culture is going to be weakened. And they want to do what they can to stop that.”

Adapted from an article that was first published appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

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