Right-wing social media accounts have been widely sharing two photographs that they claim show the whistleblower at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and prove that the whistleblower is biased against Trump and hopelessly untrustworthy.
In fact, the pictures show nothing of the sort.
But that hasn’t stopped the images from being shared thousands of times and amplified virally across the conservative media ecosystem. The images’ persistence on the internet highlights how digital misinformation is increasingly coming into play in the discourse surrounding the impeachment probe, and how some online platforms are struggling to contain the damage.
The photos depict an assemblage of then-President Barack Obama’s staffers gathered by the White House Rose Garden the day after Trump’s election victory in 2016. In one image, a bespectacled man glowers at somebody outside of the frame. The bespectacled man is circled in red, with pixelated arrows drawn pointing at his face. In the other image, the man is seen staring grimly into the camera. Another red arrow points directly at his head.
“Meet the alleged Ukraine call whistleblower,” the text beneath the photo reads.
The man in the image is R. David Edelman, a former technology policy adviser to Obama. In 2017, Edelman went to lead cybersecurity and artificial intelligence policy research at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology think tank.
Edelman denied he is the whistleblower in an exclusive interview with CNN Business on Thursday. And it would be impossible for him to have been the whistleblower: Edelman left government, he noted, long before the events outlined in the whistleblower’s report.
Nevertheless, in various online memes this week Edelman was accused of being the whistleblower. Some social media posts linked Edelman’s photo to the name of a person who conservatives, including President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., have publicly speculated is the whistleblower. (The reports are unsubstantiated and major media outlets have refrained from reporting the name. CNN has sent guidance to staff about not repeating any reporting that alleges the name and identity of the whistleblower.)
The result for Edelman has been a deluge of unexpected internet infamy.
“I certainly thought my days of causing Twitter outrage were behind me,” Edelman said, “but the internet never fails to surprise.”
The photographs involving Edelman have spread widely among conservative social media users. They were shared by Jerome Corsi, the birther conspiracy theorist; Ashley StClair, an online influencer who represented a youth conservative group — until she was pictured last month meeting with white nationalists — and Dean Cain, the actor who played Superman on a 1990s television series.
Cain, Edelman said, was among those who was most effective at driving the misinformation into public view. By retweeting StClair, Cain shared the images to his more than 370,000 Twitter followers.
The tweet by StClair, to more than 160,000 followers, has been retweeted nearly 16,000 times and liked more than 23,000 times.
On Friday afternoon, Cain apologized for spreading the misinformation and deleted his tweet.
Edelman said he has received messages from angry internet users warning him to watch his back and telling him that he is as good as done for. Speaking with CNN Business, Edelman appeared personally unconcerned by the threats. But, he said, the experience underscores the harassment that some ordinary social media users confront on a regular basis.
“I am one of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of people that have been victims, on some level, of an online flash mob,” he said.
Other internet users came to Edelman’s defense. One of them, California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, retweeted one of the images and said Edelman “hasn’t worked for the govt since 2017.” And Edelman said he saw one person self-identifying as a member of the QAnon group — which alleges, without evidence, that “deep state” government agents are seeking to undermine Trump — also taking pains to say the images had been debunked.
Edelman said he reported the images to Twitter (TWTR), but that the company responded saying the images did not appear to violate the social media platform’s terms of service.
Asked for comment, a Twitter spokesperson said, “Per our private information policy, any Tweets that include personally identifiable information about any individual, including the alleged whistleblower, would be in violation of the Twitter Rules.”
The furor over Edelman’s mistaken identity shines a spotlight on the policies of large tech platforms, he said.
“We are having,” he said, “and need to continue having, a very serious conversation about how platforms like Twitter handle cases of mistaken identity, and the harassment that follows. I’m not the first case.”
On Twitter, Edelman injected the episode with a touch of levity.
“You: ‘Came here for some hot whistleblower news; disappointed,’” he tweeted. “Also you?: ‘Oh, technology & public policy, now *that’s* interesting!’”
Edelman’s experience is indeed not an isolated incident, according to researchers at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank. The group said it has found at least four distinct cases of people being misidentified in photographs as the whistleblower.
“With this development, social media is now awash w/ attempts to weaponize the whistleblower’s identity,” the researchers tweeted, “creating a massive risk for them, their families & anyone indirectly associated with them, including multiple ppl whose photos have been used in anti-whistleblower propaganda.”
The exact origins of the meme remain somewhat mysterious. Through his own research into the social media posts, Edelman said he believes the first instances were posted to Twitter and reddit at roughly the same time, and they appeared on Facebook (FB) slightly later. Edelman said he reported the images to Facebook (FB) but has not yet received a response. Edelman said he did not report the images to reddit. Reddit didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Facebook said: “Any mention of the potential whistleblower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy, which prohibits content ‘outing of witness, informant, or activist.’ We are removing any and all mentions of the potential whistleblower’s name and will revisit this decision should their name be widely published in the media or used by public figures in debate.”
As a technology and cybersecurity expert, Edelman said he began tapping contacts in the digital forensics field on Thursday to see if they could independently determine the source of the misinformation. The near-simultaneous posting of the meme to multiple social media platforms, he said, resembles “typical tradecraft” for those seeking to spread misinformation.
But so far he and his fellow researchers have made little progress, even as the images falsely linking Edelman to the supposed whistleblower continue to circulate.