“Just two people doing a white power hand gesture in the White House,” Fusion’s Emma Roller tweeted on April 28, attaching an image of two fair-skinned blonds in front of a White House backdrop.
The man and the woman in the picture are each smiling with one hand each at shoulder height, index fingers and thumbs touching in a gesture widely understood as meaning “OK.”
Leading up to Roller’s tweet, however, internet trolls at the website 4chan had been working on a hoax conspiracy called “Operation O-KKK,” meant to spread the idea that white supremacists had adopted the OK signal as a secret hand gesture.
Mike Cernovich, the man in the picture, even appeared to pat himself on the back when Roller tweeted out condemnation.
“Trap was set and they walked into it,” he wrote on April 29. “Fake news looks trivial, absurd, and most of all dishonest.”
Cassandra Fairbanks, the woman in the picture, meanwhile brought a federal defamation complaint against Roller in Washington.
The June 1 complaint says Roller’s tweet has disrupted her day-to-day life, frustrated her professional opportunities and invited threats of violence against her.
“The serious nature of the allegation that plaintiff made a white power hand gesture should have heightened defendant’s due diligence in confirming the veracity of the claim before publishing the caption,” the 9-page complaint states. “Defendant acted with actual malice when she published the caption either with actual knowledge that the caption was not true or with reckless disregard as to its truth.”
Seeking an injunction and damages, Fairbanks is represented by Los Angeles attorney Robert Barnes and Daniel Mauler, an attorney with the Alexandria, Virginia, firm Redmon, Peyton & Braswell.
Best known for representing Ralph Nader and Wesley Snipes, attorney Barnes claimed that Roller will have a hard time denying malice since she has written for the New York Times and The Atlantic.
“If that’s true, she should resign from the profession of journalism because she has no business in it,” Barnes said in a phone interview.
Fusion Vice President David Ford called the lawsuit frivolous, saying the news website will fully support and defend Roller.
“This suit is an obvious publicity stunt and an attempt to intimidate reporters who scrutinize the activities of the extreme right,” Ford said in a statement.
Though the Anti-Defamation League called Operation O-KKK a hoax last month, it questioned the motives of the people involved.
“Some of the hoaxers were possibly racists or white supremacists themselves, as parts of 4chan are something of a haven for them and the site itself has been a source of adherents of the alt right segment of the white supremacist movement,” the group said.
Fairbanks alleges that Roller refused to correct her assertion or apologize after the ADL debunked the OK sign as a hate symbol.
Roller’s tweet was shared more than 6,000 times before she deleted it and set her Twitter feed to private. By that time, Yahoo News and the British The Independent picked up the story.
The tweet came at a moment of increasing tensions between mainstream news organizations and growing concern over a new crop of partisan, conservative media outlets that have set up camp in Washington, pushing conspiracy theories and regularly accusing the mainstream press of bias.
Fairbanks worked for the Russian state-funded Sputnik news website when Roller tweeted about her. Now she writes for the far-right Big League Politics alongside Cernovich, a prominent reporter of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which accuses Hillary Clinton of being involved in a sex-trafficking ring associated with a D.C. pizza joint.
Attorney Barnes says his client was once a civil rights activist and reported on the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Fairbanks – who is of Puerto Rican descent – has since undergone a political transformation of sorts. After backing Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, much of the Fairbanks’ writing now openly supports President Donald Trump.
Barnes called what happened to Fairbanks “censorship by smear campaign,” and says it has made his client a target for violence at some of the protests she covers.
“What Emma Roller did was draw a target on Cassandra’s head,” he said.
Claiming that Fairbanks is not the only one with her neck on the line, Barnes says the first local counsel in the case pulled out on the day of filing, citing fear of being associated with a racist lawsuit.
“There will be lots of people who never met Cassandra who think she’s part of an alt-right, racist movement,” Barnes said.
Barnes predicted that more lawsuits like this will follow.
“If journalists maintain this mentality, where they think they’re above the law, then I’ll be here to sue them for free as long as it takes until it stops,” Barnes said.
Lynn Walsh, a member of the FOIA and ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, said the lawsuit against Roller holds an important lesson for journalists.
“This is a reminder to make sure that we are fact checking – that we are really going above and beyond to be ethical, to be fair when we’re categorizing people,” Walsh said. “To not be publishing information too quickly, especially when it comes to the internet and photos and tweeting. And not to jump to conclusions.”
Though whatever fact checking Roller did is not yet known, Walsh expressed concern about the motives of attorney Barnes in taking on the case.
“Sometimes you see these suits that they’re used to attack and prevent or chill speech,” Walsh said. “And that is a concern that I have.”