A minister in south Alabama gets a phone call from a man who says he is a Washington Post reporter offering cash for dirt about Senate candidate Roy Moore. A man who told an Alabama newspaper about Moore's alleged approaches to teenage girls when he was in his 30s receives texts falsely telling him he is being sued for defamation.
On Twitter and Facebook, in texts and in phone calls, Alabamians say they are on the receiving end of a muddy river of threats, dirty tricks and angry attacks, all aimed at undermining allegations that Moore, the Republican candidate in next month's special election to fill a U.S. Senate seat, made sexual advances on teenagers decades ago.
After Blake Usry told AL.com, an Alabama news site, that he knew girls Moore tried to flirt with, Usry received threatening phone calls and Facebook messages, as well as texts informing him that he had been sued for defamation.
One text falsely claimed that northern Alabama's U.S. attorney, Jay Town, "has verified defamation cases" against Usry and others who were quoted in news articles.
"I just thought, here they go, trying to intimidate me," said Usry, who lives in Gadsden, where Moore lived and worked. "It could be a religious zealot, some right-wing nut, someone from Roy Moore's campaign, I don't know. It doesn't intimidate me, but it's caused me misery all day long."
The claim that the U.S. attorney was moving against those who spoke out about Moore is "patently absurd," Town said. "My office has not received, nor would we have the legal basis to pursue, any such defamation cases." Under federal law, defamation is a civil matter, not a crime.
In today's politics of disbelief, every burst of news is fodder for an avalanche of pushback and disinformation. In the Moore case, that reaction has come in the form of organized campaigns by Moore's supporters defending their candidate and grass-roots expressions from individuals who believe that any report in the news media may be politically motivated.
"People down here are pushing back against The Washington Post, the moderate liberal Republicans and the Washington establishment that thinks we're all stupid," said Dean Young, a Republican political consultant in Alabama who called himself "Judge Moore's number one adviser." "They're pushing back every way we can."
Lawyers representing Moore and his campaign have sent letters to news organizations, including AL.com and The Post, warning that they are preparing to file suit against the outlets for "making false reports."
Young said he doesn't know who is responsible for messages from fake Post reporters, but he suggested that it might be the newspaper itself: "Who says you all aren't paying someone to do that? Go pay more people to say stuff. It's a waste of money because people here know Judge Moore and we know he does believe in a Christian God, so that fake stuff doesn't work with us."
Campaigns and their supporters have always defended themselves against allegations of wrongdoing, but the range and effect of tactics used to push back against damaging news articles has metastasized in this era of polarized politics and social media.
Responding to controversy with alternative narratives, conspiracy theories and attacks on the messengers is as American as the half-century of anguished debate over who really killed John F. Kennedy or the midnight mullings over what really happened in the skies over Area 51. Skepticism morphs into disbelief, and those who are inclined to mistrust authority latch onto notions that may seem fantastic.
This long-standing tradition is hypermagnified by the speed and ease of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, where any user can post "alternative facts" in the same format as verified reporting.
The latest struggle over what to believe follows The Post's investigation, published last week, in which four women said Moore pursued them when they were teenagers. The youngest of the women, Leigh Corfman, said Moore initiated a sexual encounter with her in 1979, when she was 14 and he was 32. A fifth woman came forward this week, saying Moore sexually assaulted her in the 1970s when she was 16.
An Alabama pastor named Al Moore — no relation to the candidate — received a voice mail Tuesday from "Bernie Bernstein," who identified himself as a Post reporter and said he was looking for women "between the ages of 54 to 57 years old willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 and $7,000." The voice mail, which showed up on caller ID as a "private number," concluded with a phony email address purportedly at The Post.
Al Moore said he could tell right away that the call was fake. He let a local TV station know about the call because "it's important that we let the public know how ugly this thing has gotten."
Al Moore said he hasn't decided whether to believe the allegations against Roy Moore.
"I'm a pastor and I'm conservative, and so is Roy Moore, but I'm not dumb," Al Moore said. "I'm on the fence until we know more. But the thing that bothered me is that someone is so adamant to bury this guy out there, that they would even attempt to do this."
The caller referred to himself as "Bernie" but later gave his email address as "Al Bernstein." (Al Moore tried to respond to the email address, but his message bounced back as undeliverable.) There are no Post reporters or editors named Bernie Bernstein or Al Bernstein.
The Post's executive editor, Martin Baron, said the call was bogus.
"The response to our meticulously reported story about Roy Moore has been a stunning level of deceit, deception and dirty tricks," Baron said. "The Moore campaign and others have lied about our motives and lied about our methods. And at least one individual — we're still not sure who — has also pretended to be a Post journalist so as to falsely portray our journalistic practices."
A Moore campaign spokesman, John Rogers, did not respond to questions about the various threats. He told WKRG, an Alabama TV station, that he had not heard about any robo-calls.
Roy Moore's wife, Kayla, complained in a Facebook post Wednesday that "the Washington Post is calling and harassing anyone that has had any contact with me, my husband, and other family members." She referred to a real Post reporter who was reporting an article about Kayla Moore and had sent requests for information to possible sources.
"The Washington Post is working on a profile of Kayla Moore, not unlike other stories we've done about spouses of high-profile candidates," Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said. "As part of that reporting, The Post has reached out to many people by phone, email and through social media." Coratti called the reporter's message "a straightforward, respectful request for an interview."
On social media, veterans of past attacks on news reporting have rallied around Moore. Mike Cernovich, a prominent critic of what he calls the "fake news media," tweeted that "sexual harassment is the new race card and many GOP men will be falsely accused."
"Someone is lying on" Roy Moore, a user tweeted under the name Marion Talley, claiming that Corfman was older than she has said she was at the time of her encounter with Moore. Talley declared defending Moore to be a matter of loyalty, akin to sticking with Donald Trump after the release last fall of an "Access Hollywood" tape in which he boasts of grabbing women by their genitals.
"When they played the infamous pussy tape, I didn't quit Trump. Not when HE was accused," the Talley account tweeted. "No one should quit Roy Moore. This is the same thing by the same people."
Much of the pushback from the right has focused on trying to discredit The Post's reporting about Moore. Breitbart quoted its chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, calling reports about Moore a "weaponized hit" organized by the news media and the Republican establishment. Breitbart published an article quoting Corfman's mother saying that a Post reporter had persuaded her daughter to tell her story — as if that ordinary aspect of news reporting were somehow improper.
Gateway Pundit, a right-wing site, spread a story from a Twitter account, @umpire43, that said, "A family friend in Alabama just told my wife that a [Washington Post] reporter named Beth offer her 1000 to accuse Roy Moore," showing the dollar amount as most Americans never would. The Post, like many other news organizations, has a strict policy against paying sources for information.
The @umpire43 account, which has since been deleted, had 18,000 followers and operated under the name "Doug Lewis #MAGA." The account has a history of spreading misinformation, such as its claim last fall that Huma Abedin, vice chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, was about to be indicted. That never happened.
The account's operator offered often-shifting strands of autobiography, claiming at various points to have been a Navy veteran, an associate of former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, an owner of a polling firm, and a baseball umpire. In a report by the Daily Beast, several of the employers that "Doug Lewis" claimed to have worked for had no record of such a person.
A spokesman for Twitter would not comment on @umpire43 but said "we carefully review all reported possible violations of the Twitter rules and take action as appropriate."
The text messages that threatened Usry with a defamation lawsuit came from a phone number that was created on Tuesday, used to send seven texts, and was then shut down Wednesday after inquiries from a Post reporter, according to Bandwidth.com, a North Carolina company that generates temporary phone numbers for apps such as Burner.
David Morken, Bandwidth's chief executive who served on President Trump's transition team for the Federal Communications Commission, said he was unaware of the texts. He said the number the texts were sent from appeared to be one of his company's 52 million phone numbers. After The Post provided Bandwidth with the number used in the Alabama case, Morken said his company determined that the texts were unwanted and harassing, and shut down the phone number.
Aaron C. Davis, Herman Wong and Alice Crites contributed to this report.