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Some use the hoax known as 'swatting' to spread misinformation on social media

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a story that begins with a man named Travis Rothweiler.

TRAVIS ROTHWEILER: I can remember being in a meeting. And in that meeting, I was told that there was a possible incident going on at Canyon Ridge High School.

INSKEEP: Which is in Twin Falls, Idaho, where Rothweiler is city manager.

ROTHWEILER: It was about 12 seconds later they told me that there was an active shooter, that there was one person down, that there were three people injured, and it was in a math class. I still get kind of a little emotional talking about it because when you start putting those things together, probably every parent can tell you what class and what period their kid is in. And I knew that at that point in time, my kid was in math class.

INSKEEP: Think about how that moment must have felt for Rothweiler and then imagine what he felt when he learned it was all a hoax. This was not an active shooter. Nobody was killed. Amid the real mass shootings in this country, people have been calling in fake ones. The practice is called swatting. It happens a lot. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin reports on who takes advantage of these incidents to push their own schemes.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Let's hear another person's account of that day in Twin Falls.

CRAIG STOTTS: You know, that day started off just like any other day. And by 9:47 in the morning, we received - our dispatch center received the call...

MCLAUGHLIN: Lieutenant Craig Stotts remembers the exact time he heard about the shooter at the local high school on February 22.

STOTTS: ...Reported that there were shots fired at Canyon Ridge High School and that one person, I believe, at that time was injured in a classroom.

MCLAUGHLIN: Within minutes, first responders descended on the scene - SWAT teams, ambulances, helicopters, local reporters, then a flood of panicked parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE KIRCH: Treasure Valley, eastern Idaho.

MCLAUGHLIN: Steve Kirch, a local reporter with TV station KMVT, recorded an interaction between parents and Lieutenant Craig Stotts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 'Cause I'm getting messages...

STOTTS: No, I don't think...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...From my brother saying that there's...

MCLAUGHLIN: It's hard to make out, which almost perfectly represents the confusion and chaos of the scene outside the school. But within an hour of the call, Stotts of the Twin Falls Police Department was feeling confident.

STOTTS: So we did, obviously, several different clearings, you know, the initial clear, and then went back and went through the entire school again and did a final third clear. And that was about 10:40 in the morning.

MCLAUGHLIN: There was no shooter. The call was a hoax.

STOTTS: So the call came in at 9:47. Everything was clear by 10:40.

MCLAUGHLIN: But something weird was happening. Here's Steve Kirch, the local reporter.

KIRCH: And, you know, the police chief - and we had cellphone video of people basically calling the police chief a liar.

MCLAUGHLIN: Calling the police chief a liar. The parents just wouldn't believe Lieutenant Stotts.

KIRCH: Saying, no, there's dead kids in there. There's three dead kids in there. My kid told me there's three dead kids in there. And the police chief's telling them, like, no, nobody is dead. And they're saying, you're lying to me, and wanting to check ambulances and saying, show me that there's not a dead body in there.

MCLAUGHLIN: In all the confusion, as the SWAT team swept the building, panicked students texted their parents thinking they heard gunshots. But something else stood out to everybody that day.

KIRCH: You know, and all this was fueled through social media.

JOSH PALMER: Social media was not our friend on that day. What we were seeing was a very - like, a targeted misinformation campaign to the city of Twin Falls.

MCLAUGHLIN: Within minutes of the hoax call, Josh Palmer says his team was taking down fake videos and links. He's the city's chief information officer.

PALMER: And initially, it was videos of an individual who was talking about a shooting, that it occurred - had just occurred. And from the looks of the video, I mean, the background, it looked to be a rural area, but definitely not high-desert region where we're at.

MCLAUGHLIN: It was like whack-a-mole. The videos and posts were popping up as soon as Josh and his team hid them across most of the six Facebook pages his team runs for the city.

PALMER: You know, it just perpetuated a lot of that confusion and misinformation right at probably the worst possible time, as parents are coming to the school.

MCLAUGHLIN: All this got the attention of Mike Shirley (ph), a local Idahoan from neighboring town Kimberly. His wife used to be a dance coach at Canyon Ridge. From where she works at a nearby office, she watched the swarm of police and texted her husband.

MIKE SHIRLEY: So I'm at work, and she texted me, active shooter at Canyon Ridge. And naturally, you're like, oh, my heck. And you start, you know, immediately panicking, wanting to go see what updates there are...

MCLAUGHLIN: He went to Facebook, of course.

SHIRLEY: ...Just to check, you know, comments and searching. And it was shortly in where I see those, you know, those spam articles or links getting posted.

MCLAUGHLIN: Twin Falls is a close-knit conservative community that many residents described to me as idyllic. The area is literally called Magic Valley. It's green and beautiful with trails and nature, the kind of place you almost don't want to tell too many people about so it doesn't get too crowded. The hoax calls have shaken the community deeply. In the past, in places like Twin Falls and others, some of these swatting calls have been teenagers looking to get out of exams. But it doesn't look like that's the case here. That mystery has led Mike Shirley and others to ask questions. And they noticed a pattern, the same one NPR has been documenting.

SHIRLEY: Another city about 30 miles from here - Burley is what it's called - their school also had the call, the hoax happen. And so I'm like, man, yeah, I really wonder if that is, you know, something that is connected. It just seems so off and odd.

MCLAUGHLIN: Mike Shirley's instincts were spot on. Burley was hit that same day. And on March 2, a whole new wave of calls came in all across the country - Highland Park High School in Topeka, Hastings Public School in Nebraska. In Lawrence, Kan., police officers shared dash and body cam videos of officers responding to the call about a shooting at Free State High School in real time on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: Call-taker now advising the caller has hung up.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible).

MCLAUGHLIN: Right now, police departments aren't sharing recordings from the recent wave of calls because they're officially part of an FBI investigation. But in descriptions of the new calls, there are striking similarities to past incidents. Here's Lieutenant Craig Stotts.

STOTTS: Yes, there was an accent. Came on our non-emergency line.

MCLAUGHLIN: And in Burley, the caller is also described as having a foreign accent, gave specific information about a classroom and teacher that didn't actually exist. It was the same at Hastings High School in Nebraska, making the 911 dispatchers immediately suspicious. And in every case, social media spammers flock to local news and official town Facebook posts sharing sketchy links. It made Mike Shirley wonder if the whole thing was planned in advance.

SELENA LARSON: So in most cases, you go to the about page of a lot of these websites, and there's not any information there. There's no information about who works at them, who the journalists are, who owns the website or, you know, oftentimes, even where it's located.

MCLAUGHLIN: Selena Larson is an intelligence analyst at the cybersecurity firm, Proofpoint. She took a look at some of the spammy links that were still up on posts about swatting calls in Canyon Ridge and elsewhere. Some were fake videos laced with malware. Others were fake news sites plastered with ads. It's unclear if the posts have any connection to the people making the calls. Larson said she didn't think so. These bad actors on the web follow all kinds of bad news. They look for people to prey on. Though without more details, it's hard to know for sure. But either way, social media is wreaking havoc in these communities, giving opportunities to people who want to take advantage of the fear.

Meanwhile, local communities like Twin Falls are stuck, traumatized without answers about who made the swatting calls and, more importantly, why. With no clear connections to a financial scam, no extortion demands, no obvious benefit to be made, that remains a perplexing, maddening, still-open question. But for Travis Rothweiler, the city manager of Twin Falls, the impact is clear.

ROTHWEILER: Well, people are using the term hoax. I'm going to say that it's an act of terrorism because the entire - in my opinion, the purpose is to elicit fear.

MCLAUGHLIN: Maybe in the end, the fear is the point.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Jenna McLaughlin, who's been investigating this practice of swatting and revealing today the additional practice of people following up on those hoaxes with hoaxes of their own. Jenna, how big a problem is this?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's pretty massive. So through public records and open-source data, we can confidently say that even just in the past couple of months, there have been hundreds of schools targeted by these kinds of hoax calls. And as I started digging into the social media side of things, I saw a lot of the same profiles commenting with sketchy links and videos and trying to take advantage of the fear. So it really is definitely a pattern.

INSKEEP: OK. So the underlying problem here, of course, is the swatting itself. Who's doing that?

MCLAUGHLIN: That is a huge mystery. You know, we have heard some of these recordings from earlier incidents, and the pattern matches up. You know, the dispatch center receives a call to their non-emergency line. They describe the person on the other end as a man with an accent. He talks about a bomb or a shooter, gives a fake name and location. Oftentimes, they're using an internet calling app, which helps them to disguise their location because it's not using phone lines. Our previous reporting traced these calls back to Ethiopia. FBI is not sharing new records on these recent calls, but the pattern keeps up. There was a man actually arrested recently out in Washington state who was using a similar calling app and voice-disguising technology, but he didn't appear to be targeting schools.

INSKEEP: So we've just got clues rather than an answer. What else have you learned?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. So, you know, we don't have too much more. But what's crazy is that on the dark web, you can essentially pay people to make these kinds of swatting calls for you. I mentioned that man out in Washington who was recently arrested.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MCLAUGHLIN: And, you know, as horrifying as it sounds, there is a community in dark parts of the internet that get a rise out of this, and they oftentimes livestream their calls. Social media is honestly just making it worse. This mystery is definitely something we plan to keep reporting on.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jenna McLaughlin. Thanks so much.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF VENNA'S "SICILY' BOX (FEAT. YUSSEF DAYES, MARCO BERNARDIS AND ROCCO PALLADINO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.