Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump Twitter personality known for peddling conspiracy theories like "Pizzagate," gave a speech at Columbia University on Monday. He was met with protests.
Jake Offenhartz, who was covering the protest, tweeted a photo of protesters holding a "planted" sign that said, "no pedo bashing."
After Offenhartz posted the photo, it was tweeted by Cernovich, but without the "it was planted" caveat, at which point the story was completely changed. Offenhartz wrote about what happened for Gothamist.
An hour before Cernovich was supposed to speak, protesters were walking to campus. About halfway through, one person came up to the front, Offenhartz told BuzzFeed News. The progression stopped for a minute, and that's when the sign was unveiled.
"You could tell that there were at least one or two people there who, as soon as the sign was held up, skirted off and got out of the way," he said.
He said a few reporters took photos of the sign, but the protesters quickly realized what was going on and stopped holding the sign.
"A lot of these protesters are aware of the fact that this is an alt-right tactic, so it didn't take them long at all to figure out what's going on," he said.
After the 2016 presidential election, Trump supporters held up a "Rape Melania" sign at an anti-Trump protest in Washington, DC. It drew condemnation from both sides of the political spectrum, but BuzzFeed News reported that it was part of a coordinated misinformation campaign.
Videos posted to Twitter support Offenhartz's account. In one, a man is seen holding a rolled-up poster.
A Periscope also shows that the sign wasn't originally there. At about 9:45 minutes in, it appears at the head of the march. It's there for about a minute before protesters take it down and start asking who was holding it.
It seems like it wasn't the only sign, either. Reporter Stephanie Tangkilisan captured a video later in the evening that shows protesters ripping up an identical sign, saying, "another one."
Aaron Holmes, the news editor for the Columbia Spectator, was reporting on the protest along with two others. He said none of them saw the commotion, but no other protester they saw was holding signs supporting pedophilia.
"They were holding signs against Mike Cernovich's comments on Islam, Black Lives Matter signs," he told BuzzFeed News.
After Offerhartz posted the photo, far-right commentators tweeted it.
Offerhartz reported Cernovich's tweet for copyright infringement, and his tweet was taken down.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Cernovich to ask him about the details of what happened but did not immediately heard back.
From there, other personalities wrongly said the image was being censored and kept tweeting about it.
Donald Trump Jr. even liked one of the tweets.
InfoWars, a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, then wrote about the sign. The post has almost 6,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, and about 3,600 interactions on Twitter as of Tuesday evening, according to social share measuring tool BuzzSumo.
The post dismissed claims that the sign was planted. Although a longer video would show that protesters quickly put down the sign, InfoWars only included an eight-second version tweeted by Jack Posobiec.
"It seemed at first to me like a small silly little troll, but then it's concerning to watch how the alt-right sausage gets made," Offenhartz said. "It does seem to me like there are supporters out there who either believe this is true or don't care to find out."
Jane Lytvynenko is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto, Canada. PGP fingerprint: A088 89E6 2500 AD3C 8081 BAFB 23BA 21F3 81E0 101C.
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