Less than 24 hours after a shooting massacre in Las Vegas left 59 people dead, Sean Hannity was on his Fox News program talking to his audience about one of his favorite subjects: liberals. That night he was focused on the “despicable” ones whom he accused of “politicizing” the mass shooting. They have “no shame,” he said. Did his viewers hear about the CBS lawyer who was fired for a Facebook comment saying she had “no sympathy” for any “Republican gun toters” among the victims?
Then he mentioned a tweet that he said had been sent his way. It was written by “a teacher,” can you believe it? Hannity paraphrased the tweet: “Oh they’re probably Trumptards. I hope only Trumptards were killed.”
Hannity’s viewers were horrified. Who was she? Has she lost her job? They weren’t the only ones wondering.
An image of that tweet, from a user named @TheResistANNce, was shared tens of thousands of times before Hannity mentioned it on his show. It prompted the usual machinations of the Internet’s outrage cycle: finding, naming and shaming the teacher out of her online anonymity to get her fired from her job. But there’s one problem: A mounting pile of evidence strongly suggests that the hated liberal teacher behind @TheResistANNce doesn’t exist.
“I’m sure the tweet was either a ‘troll prank’ or fake,” emailed Janne Ahlberg, who runs the @HoaxEye account on Twitter. Ahlberg investigates visual hoaxes online as a hobby, particularly those that go viral on Twitter. He’s pretty experienced at it, and this tweet raised his suspicions almost immediately. But on the Internet, virality often outpaces verification. Days after @TheResistANNce became embedded in the Internet’s collective memory as a villain who to conservative eyes symbolized all that was vile about liberals, Ahlberg still doesn’t know exactly how this tweet came to be.
What he does know is that several things about the tweet don’t add up.
First, there was the way it circulated. @TheResistANNce’s viral tweet seems to exist only in a single image, taken when the tweet had zero likes or retweets — indicating that the image was taken before very many people had discovered it. The image also showed @TheResistANNce’s profile, which said that the account was created in November 2011.
An anonymous Twitter account called the Columbia Bugle was one of the first accounts with a large following to tweet out the image. As it circulated, @TheResistANNce’s Twitter account was still active, but it suddenly looked very different.
The account’s creation date said it “May 2017″ instead of “November 2011.” And instead of the middle-aged woman seen in the viral image, the account’s profile image was now that of a younger man. The tweet about “trumptards” was nowhere to be seen. Instead, when Ahlberg checked, the account showed only one tweet that seemed to be a promotion for a podcast. (The newer profile picture also happens to be the first Google image search result for the full name of one of that podcast’s hosts.)
The archival material available on @TheResistANNce is more or less nonexistent. Neither Google’s cache nor the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine have archived versions of the account available. A reverse image search turns up no matches for the profile picture of the older woman seen in the image. And, as both Ahlberg and I have found out while looking into this tweet, the two people on the Internet who say for sure that they saw the actual tweet, and not the image of it, aren’t exactly forthcoming with more information.
First, there’s “SPOOKY,” the nickname on a Twitter account that appears to belong to a Midwestern teen. Even though the image of @TheResistANNce’s tweet was taken before anyone had liked or retweeted it, there is one, single reply to the tweet. That reply is from “SPOOKY, ” and it’s not appropriate for a family newspaper’s website.
For those sharing the tweet, “SPOOKY” became a viral hero for putting @TheResistANNce in her place with a sexist, obscene insult. But when Ahlberg and others began asking him how he found the tweet — or perhaps whether he knew anything about its creation, “SPOOKY” set his Twitter account to private and then deleted it altogether. He didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post sent by Facebook messenger on Tuesday to a profile that appears be his.
And then there’s the anonymous Twitter user who says they took the image. This person replied to HoaxEye on Twitter claiming that the image was genuine, and promised to answer some of Ahlberg’s questions on DM. They’ve been talking for a couple of days so far, that conversation has been slow and inconclusive — the person claims to live in New Zealand, while Ahlberg is based in Finland.
All Ahlberg can do now is wait. “TheResistANNce account is gone,” he said. “There’s no sign of the tweet except one screenshot. The only person who responded to the tweet deleted their account.” And the person who took the screenshot can, due to the time difference, take as many as 20 hours to respond to Ahlberg’s questions.
The gap between virality and verification often opens a space for an online version of a folk tale, complete with a viral hero or villain. As a vague tale of a teacher who dared to wish death on Trump supporters, @TheResistANNce has embedded itself into this space, no matter what Ahlberg eventually concludes.
We’ve seen this before. For instance, in May, Liberal Twitter couldn’t stop sharing a tweet that appeared to show a young girl telling Trump he was a “disgrace.” By the time Snopes debunked it (it was a clip from Comedy Central’s “The President Show” featuring a Trump impersonator), the viral tweet had spawned nearly 200,000 retweets. The debunkings often come too late to stop the spread of a tantalizing story.
‘This kind of debunking case requires a lot of time,” Ahlberg said. “Finding the source, related accounts, point of escalation etc. alone took about 8 hours. I think I’ve spent several hours per evening since Monday on this case, most likely over 20 hours.”
But the thing is, as inconsequential as this churn of dubious, fading virality can seem, it’s not always victimless. @TheResistANNce might not exist, but that doesn’t mean that a real person couldn’t get hurt by all this. “What worries me is that the photo in ‘Ann’s’ profile might be of a real person,” Ahlberg said. In other words, the woman seen holding a baby in the viral image could be someone who has nothing to do with any of this mess.
“There are many people online who have said: ‘lets find her’, ‘contact her school’ etc.,” Ahlberg wrote. “If someone manages to find a matching profile, this could lead to real life problems.”