The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trolls decided I was taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes. I wasn’t even there.

What it's like to be at the center of a fake-news conspiracy theory.

Washington Post homepage editor Doris Truong was at the center of a fake news conspiracy. Here's how it happened. (Video: Victoria Walker, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

There’s a joke among Asian Americans that people think we all look the same. That joke became my own personal Pizzagate late Wednesday: I got caught in a terrible case of mistaken identity that was exacerbated by the speed at which false information spreads on social media.

I work as a homepage editor at The Washington Post. Because Wednesday was my day off, I hadn’t been online much. But before I went to bed, I noticed a message request on Facebook. Someone I didn’t know asked: “Any comment on you taking photos of Rex Tillerson’s notes?” When I checked Twitter, I had to scroll for several minutes to figure out what was going on. It seemed to start with this post: “Who is this woman and why is she secretly snapping photos of Rex Tillerson’s notes?”

Right-wing bloggers and Twitter posters had noticed a woman who they thought was taking pictures of the notes that Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive who is Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, had taken during his Senate confirmation hearing. Instantly, they started to “investigate” whatever was going on. Before I could do anything about it, someone had decided the woman was me. No one ever bothered to contact me, but it was this post that Twitter seized upon overnight. By the time I woke up, trolls had commented on social media channels besides Twitter. My Facebook feed had dozens of angry messages from people I didn’t know, as did comments on my Instagram account. Even my rarely used YouTube channel attracted attention. My emails and my voicemail included messages calling me “pathetic” and a “sneaky thief.”

A lot of the comments also focused on my Chinese heritage, implying — or outright stating — that I must be spying for China. Some called for an FBI investigation of what they deemed illegal behavior.

I’m perplexed and, honestly, shocked by how quickly the narrative went from someone trying to identify a woman in a video to another person attaching a name to hordes seizing upon that information as the truth.

The woman at the hearing wasn’t me. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know who she is. What we have in common is that we’re both women, and we’re both Asian. However, that should not be enough grounds for people to jump to dangerous conclusions.

I lost track of the tweets, retweets and variations of tweets, including some with my Twitter handle superimposed on a photo from the hearing. People demanded my firing and questioned my ethics as a journalist. Top editors at The Post had heard about it. The false narrative snowballed early Thursday because a Gateway Pundit post was picked up by the Drudge Report.

Even Sarah Palin tweeted it.

Friends and colleagues rose to my defense. Even as efforts to set the record straight took on greater urgency Thursday morning, people continued to cling to the incorrect information. Gateway Pundit updated its post: “The Washington Post says the reporter is not Doris Truong, their homepage editor,” but the vast majority of people who saw the original false report won’t see that correction.

Even more bizarrely, one Twitter user insisted that “facial software on the video” led to the “almost positive” conclusion that the woman was me.

But even if people believed that the person at the hearing wasn’t me, they wanted to know who she was. And that’s what’s particularly alarming about this time in our society: Why are people so quick to look for someone to condemn? And during the confusion about the woman’s identity, why is it presumed that she is a journalist? Or that taking pictures of notes in an open hearing is illegal? Or, for that matter, that she was even taking pictures of Tillerson’s notes?

The bright spot is that a few people have acknowledged that they erred. One person left this note on my Facebook timeline: “I was shocked to find that you are in fact not the fox in the henhouse. For that I do apologize. As penance I have gone to several sites that have posted the untrue information about you and corrected them. I doubt it will do a bit of good. I am terribly sorry and wanted you to know that not all Trump supporters are mindless and that the real truth does matter. Hope this mess gets cleared up real soon. God bless.”

The whole episode is not going to drive me off social media, which provides a way for me to connect with people across the miles, including strangers, and to be exposed to a diversity of opinions — including ones I disagree with. But I hope the ridiculousness of what happened to me in less than 12 hours makes others think critically before sharing something that can be easily disproved. For one thing, as a homepage editor, I rarely report from the field. I was not at the Tillerson hearing Wednesday. It would have been very easy to figure that out from a quick Google search or just looking at The Post’s website.

And I hope people will give the woman who was at the hearing a chance to explain her actions before questioning her motives.

Consider these points before sharing an article on Facebook. It could be fake. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Read more:

My ‘fake news list’ went viral. But made-up stories are only part of the problem.

If fake news wasn’t on Facebook, people would find it somewhere else

Why do my co-workers keep confusing me with other people? Because I’m Asian.