In the immediate aftermath of the Charlottesville terror attack, the far-right website GotNews posted what seemed like a huge scoop. The website said it could “exclusively reveal” that the person who had run over a group of demonstrators in a Dodge Charger was not a white nationalist, but instead a critic of President Donald Trump.
The Michigan man GotNews had identified was in fact not the driver. He was not even in Virginia at the time. But within hours he and his family had been forced to flee their home at the advice of local police, who expressed concern for their safety after a slew of death threats rolled in.
To be sure, GotNews wasn’t the first outlet to peddle the false report. There had been similar chatter online on places like 4Chan and Twitter, and other far-right publications also ran with the false story. But GotNews wrote about the man who was wrongly identified, Joel Vangheluwe, and his family, in perhaps the most confident terms of any publication. It retracted that story not long after it was published.
GotNews soon issued a retraction, said it regretted the error, and apologized to the family. Its founder, Charles Johnson, told CNNMoney in an email his website “merely reported on the existence of the evidence” and suggested he’d be happy to discuss the matter further with the Vangheluwe family attorney. (Johnson later tried to retroactively declare his comments off-the-record, said if they were published he would work to get this reporter “fired from CNN,” and warned this reporter not to “make the mistake of making me an enemy.”)
The family’s lawyer says they plan to sue the sites behind the false accusation. Johnson, you may know, is one of the internet’s most notorious trolls and has been banned from Twitter.