MEDIA FAIL: ABC’s “Secret Online Life” Story Leads to Secret Edits

Tsarnaev’s “Secret” Twitter Account

Tsarnaev’s “Secret” Twitter Account

ABC News started Tuesday with what the editors no doubt thought was a scoop. By the lunch hour, the prosecution-sourced story on the Boston marathon bombing was an embarrassment. And by the end of the day, a cover-up was in place.

At 9:32am EST—timed to mesh with the start of Tuesday’s trial proceedings—ABC News posted “Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Secret Online Life,” a story entirely sourced to prosecution and/or FBI leaks. As such, it previewed the argument the prosecution sought to advance that day, namely that Tsarnaev’s social media presence revealed him to be a dedicated jihadist bent on waging war on Americans.

The original story uncritically referenced prosecution talking points, portraying them as unchallenged fact. As a result, readers of the original story were told:

The second, secret Twitter account was under the name Ghuraba, which loosely translates as the Muslim word for strangers, and showed a picture of Mecca.

Anwar al-Awlaki, to whom Tsarnaev allegedly encouraged his few online followers to listen, was an American high-profile member of al Qaeda who was linked to a number of domestic terror plots. Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

The indictment against Tsarnaev also accuses him of downloading jihadist material onto his computer, including writings by al-Awlaki and by another cleric who is referred to in the indictment as the “father of global jihad.”

However, once defense attorney Miriam Conrad was able to cross examine FBI agent Steven Kimball those assertions—along with ABC’s scoop—melted away. The supposed radical social media presence was revealed to be a series of quotes from rap songs and Comedy Central shows, al-Awlaki’s “quotes” came from the Koran, and what the FBI said was a picture of Mecca was actually a shot of the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny, Chechnya.

Worse, Kimball was forced to admit that he did not follow any of the hyperlinks provided in Tsarnaev’s account(s) and completely relied on the prosecution’s attorneys for the context and interpretation of the social media data.

In short, by 11am Tuesday, ABC News knew it had a big problem with its “Secret Online Life” scoop. Everything the network’s government sources had represented as fact was, at a minimum, in doubt. So how did ABC notify its readers and customers? By secretly editing the story to include the new information. As a result, by early afternoon readers saw this change from the original:

Anwar al-Awlaki, to whom Tsarnaev allegedly encouraged his few online followers to listen, was an American high-profile member of al Qaeda who was linked to a number of domestic terror plots. Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Under cross examination, the defense attempted to paint a majority of Tsarnaev’s purported tweets as harmless. Many times, they said, he was quoting hip hop songs. The one that prosecutors indicated was an ominous tweet about the 2012 marathon was actually a line from the Quran, the defense said.

The second, secret Twitter account was under the name Ghuraba, which loosely translates as the Muslim word for strangers, and showed a picture of the Chechen capital Grozny – which the defense said had been misidentified by Kimball as the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

The indictment against Tsarnaev also accuses him of downloading jihadist material onto his computer, including writings by al-Awlaki and by another cleric who is referred to in the indictment as the “father of global jihad.”   …

…The defense also pointed out today that Tsarnaev apparently wasn’t the only one with access to at least one of the accounts. The @j_tsar account appears to have been updated in October 2013, they said, long after Tsarnaev was in custody.

It is standard practice to post a notice of even incidental changes to online content. Changes of this magnitude might commonly merit a formal clarification from the site. Not here.

In other words, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may not have had a “Secret Online Life” at all. But ABC News, certainly does.

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