If you tried to orchestrate a display of gullibility in the Internet age, you couldn't do much better than Monday morning's "news" that nine prominent elected officials, including Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, have ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
It was fascinating, and also frustrating, to watch.
Knowing Gray, I, like many in Lexington, had to laugh at the notion of our openly gay mayor hanging with hooded racists.
But not until almost 6 p.m. Monday did Anonymous, the famed hacker collective, issue a clear disavowal, tweeting via an account called Operation KKK that it "was in no way involved with today's release of information that incorrectly outed several politicians."
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Earlier in the day, Operation KKK had cast doubts on the credibility of the accusations through cryptic tweets. But when you limit yourself to communicating in 140 characters, it's hard to make a point as clearly as if you gave yourself, oh, a couple of paragraphs.
And it's not like reporters could call Anonymous seeking clarification because, well, ... anonymous.
So the allegations flew around the Internet like HBO comedian John Oliver's take-down of Matt Bevin or the latest cute cat video.
The international network of hactivists had set the stage for the mass duping by promising a #HoodsOff bulk data release of 1,000 Klan member identities on Thursday, Guy Fawkes Day.
When "A Guest" posted a document entitled "Political Figures Involved with the KKK" on the website Pastebin Sunday, the assumption was that Anonymous had started its promised data dump early.
Instead, it turned out, someone/something called Amped Attacks is taking credit (blame?) for the list that Anonymous eventually disavowed.
Meanwhile, in Lexington the mayor awoke Monday to issue an outraged denial he could never have anticipated.
Down Interstate 75 in Knoxville, Mayor Madeline Rogero, another unlikely Kluxer — she belongs to an interracial family and organized farm workers with Caesar Chavez — issued an equally outraged statement, declaring, "I don't think the KKK would want anything to do with me."
Predictably, some commenters held up the vociferousness of their denials as evidence that there must be something to the allegations.
Indeed, the four "exposed" senators, all right-wing Republicans, including North Carolina's Thom Tillis and Indiana's Dan Coats, were irresistible to left-wing activist groups, even some with sophisticated websites, such as U.S. Uncut, which as of mid-afternoon Tuesday — and despite Anonymous' disavowal — was still featuring an article headlined "Prominent US Senators and Mayors Outed as Members of the KKK by Anonymous." On its site Tuesday afternoon, Occupy Democrats had a similar breathless and erroneous headline.
The idea that Republican senators secretly colluded with Klansmen fits some worldviews so perfectly that it rendered the holders of these views incapable of rational analysis or skepticism.
And the mayors are obscure enough that it took a while for the absurdity of the accusations against them to bubble up. (The other three are from Norfolk, Ocala and Fort Wayne.)
By Monday evening the Washington Post explained, "How Anonymous's big KKK dump got muddled before it even began."
But when you Googled "Jim Gray" Tuesday afternoon, pictures of Kluxers in robes popped up along with a bunch of headlines about Gray denying any Klan-ship.
I hope a full explanation comes out of the timing of the dubious list and why these particular nine politicians.
When Anonymous releases its Klan list, remember that data without context can be misleading.
And for all you discerning consumers of news, here's yet another reminder to always consider the source. Like they teach in journalism school, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
Reach Jamie Lucke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231-3340.