Tampa’s Cameron Herrin began his 24-year sentence for vehicular homicide in April. By early July, an army of social media accounts from the other side of the world were releasing a digital deluge on anyone involved with his case.
Comments tagged “Cameron Herrin” or “justice for Cameron” flooded the Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages of the 13th Circuit Court, Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren, the Florida Department of Corrections, the Tampa Bay Times and several local television news stations. They tagged the governor, the president and Oprah.
Many appeared to be from the Middle East, posting in a mix of English and Arabic. They posted heart emoji, broken heart emoji and videos of Herrin reacting to his sentencing set to Britney Spears’ Criminal. They posted personal photos of Herrin dating back to middle school, and fan art of Herrin as an anime character.
And while the wording was often grammatically confounding, the gist was clear: The deaths of Jessica Reisinger-Raubenolt and her 21-month-old daughter were tragic, but 24 years was an unfair sentence for Herrin, who was 18 at the time of the horrific accident. And they were outraged.
By the end of July, there were more than 100,000 tweets about Herrin, possibly far more, with a new one coming every 30 seconds. The TikTok app, a wildly popular platform for short videos set to music, said videos related to Herrin were viewed 1.7 billion times.
To casual observers, it seemed Herrin, now 21, had a sizable number of international supporters calling for a shorter sentence. Experts who study online disinformation saw similarities to paid influence campaigns using fake accounts. The murky reality might fall somewhere in between, but offline, the activity had a real-world effect on Herrin’s family, his victims’ family and Herrin himself.
It was “almost like an obsession, an unhealthy obsession,” Herrin’s mother said of some of the supporters who took an interest in her son. She knows there are some real people involved — many of them called her home from Middle Eastern countries in the middle of the night.
Shelby Grossman at the Stanford Internet Observatory has studied the tactics of shady digital marketing companies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. They’ve used Twitter accounts they control to pose as everyday people to spread everything from political propaganda to positive sentiment for Dunkin coffee.
She said Twitter activity around Herrin seems to be a mix of people with an authentic opinion that Herrin’s sentence was too harsh and suspicious accounts strongly resembling those used by Middle East digital marketing firms.
Many of the pro-Herrin accounts had yearslong gaps between tweets, she said, “suggesting they may have deleted old tweets to mask the purpose of the accounts.” Some shifted from tweeting about politics, or the K-pop music group BTS, to exclusively tweeting about Herrin. It’s possible they wanted to first build a following by posting about high-interest topics.
Some of the accounts, Grossman said, seemed to have used profile photos of faces generated with artificial intelligence technology. Such photos can be made with a click at thispersondoesnotexist.com.
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Another red flag is that many of the accounts that posted about Herrin in July were also created in July, said Christopher Bouzy, who developed the tool Bot Sentinel to monitor inauthentic Twitter accounts. Bouzy believes the pro-Herrin accounts were mostly controlled by real humans, and technically not “bots,” which are fully automated and controlled by computers.
Nitin Agarwal, a distinguished professor and director of the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, pointed out strange looking websites that published articles about Herrin, including an Arabic site that is a top Google search result.
“The content on this website seems hastily put together (Cameron ‘Herren’ isn’t even spelled correctly), which is a strong indication of an inexpensive hired campaign,” Agarwal wrote by email. Another of the sites shares IP addresses with a Chinese company and another in Switzerland, a country with no regulations on who can buy or operate a website.
Twitter recently suspended around 900 accounts that posted about Herrin for various violations of the company’s platform manipulation and spam policy, effectively taking down more than 90,000 tweets. A spokesperson said the company is still actively investigating the situation, and will post the results publicly when the investigation is complete.
Detecting inauthentic activity on social media is straightforward, experts said, but understanding the motives, especially in Herrin’s case, is much harder.
Social media influence campaigns in general are a growing problem. They seek to manipulate real people by making it seem like other real people hold certain opinions. Their motives are often political, but sometimes it’s a scam, such as inflating the price of stocks. They can also be launched by someone who wants to push an agenda for personal reasons.
“The marketplace for it is huge,” said E.J. Hilbert, a cybersecurity specialist and former FBI agent who focused on cybercrime. “And it’s not that hard to find someone to do this kind of work for you.” He guessed that if it wasn’t authentic, it might cost around $10,000 to make Herrin go as viral as he did.
Herrin has already been sentenced and sent to prison. It’s unlikely that a social media outcry would have any impact on his appeal. A foreign outcry from non-citizens, who can’t vote, might carry even less weight.
Regardless, the phenomenon subjected Reisinger-Raubenolt’s surviving family members to inaccurate and insensitive social media posts about her and her husband and the facts of the case, which are not in dispute. Some of the victims’ family deleted or hid their social media accounts to get away from all the messages and unwanted friend requests.
Reisinger-Raubenolt’s family declined to comment on the record for this story.
As for the possibility that someone paid to make it appear that Herrin has more supporters on social media, Herrin’s attorney John Fitzgibbons finds it hard to believe. He thinks it was video of the sentencing hearing on YouTube that made it take off internationally.
“But I want to make it clear, none of this activity originated with us,” Fitzgibbons said. “We don’t have the technical capability or the funding.”
Herrin’s Ford Mustang topped 100 mph on Bayshore Boulevard shortly before striking Reisinger-Raubenolt and her daughter in a stroller as they tried to cross the street. Tampa police said the Mustang had slowed to between 30 and 40 mph at the time of impact.
John Barrineau, who pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and a misdemeanor charge of racing with Herrin, was sentenced to six years.
Hilbert said it seems unlikely, but he wouldn’t completely rule out a foreign adversary manipulating the Herrin narrative if another country or group wants to make the United States appear cruel or unjust. There could also be a scam element. There were some Gofundme campaigns that claimed to be raising money for Herrin that cropped up and disappeared, but those, he said, are likely opportunists and not the source.
There is also evidence of authentic Herrin supporters around the world. More than a dozen people sent photos of their ID cards and passports, along with newly-taken photos that matched their online profiles, to the Tampa Bay Times to prove they were real after Twitter deleted their accounts. Some were from Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Egypt and Mexico. One wore a T-shirt featuring Herrin’s face.
And unlike Twitter, experts who looked at TikTok found no evidence of fakery. A spokesman for Fueltok, a company selling “the best TikTok bot to make you famous,” and offering to boost likes and views on TikTok videos for a fee, said they’d looked at the top Herrin videos with millions of views and found them to be legitimately viral among real people.
Public support for Herrin started with letters and emails with prayers and encouragement after the sentencing, said his mother, Cheryl Herrin. “That, of course, gave me great comfort.”
She shared copies of dozens of those letters with the Times, as did Herrin’s attorney, and Herrin’s fiance, who have also received messages from around the world. They came from Tampa Bay locals, then Ohio and Massachusetts, then the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. Some were mothers who imagined the pain of what it would be like if their own children went to prison for decades.
Then suddenly in June, the attention ramped up and started coming from mostly Arabic-speaking countries. Herrin’s mother was grateful for those messages too, until some of it turned “scary.”
“They stalked family members on social media,” Cheryl Herrin said, and the accounts of family friends and classmates and prom dates, stealing old photos that they used in their posts. Messages to Herrin’s fiance, who began dating him after the accident, turned from polite curiosity to attacks. Her account was hacked. Fake accounts impersonating Herrin’s family members popped up.
After Herrin was moved from the Hillsborough County Jail to the Florida Department of Corrections Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando, people flooded the prison facility with phone calls. They also found the phone numbers of guards there and hacked one of their social media accounts, Cheryl Herrin said, landing her son in “solitary confinement,” and unable to communicate with family. A department of corrections spokesperson said Herrin was put in administrative confinement, isolating him from other prisoners, “out of an abundance of caution.”
Herrin has since been moved to Graceville Correctional Facility, near the Alabama state line. His security status shows “close custody,” one level below maximum, which is typical for new inmates. Records show he is living in a dormitory with other inmates in the regular population, and has no disciplinary incidents.
His appeal, on the grounds that the judge abused his discretion in the sentencing, could take more than a year. Florida sentencing guidelines for Herrin’s crimes ranged from 18 to 30 years, Judge Christopher Nash said at the sentencing. Nash said that the damage done in the accident led him to go above the minimum, while other factors, like Herrin’s clean record, ruled out the maximum sentence. Twenty four years was right in the middle.
Hilbert warns that everyone should be more suspicious of what they see on social media and where it’s coming from. Online influence campaigns are often carried out by foreign governments that want to weaken their adversaries by manipulating their citizens, he said,, but also by individuals.
There is evidence of foreign-run efforts to make it appear there are more who believe the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous than there really are. Same with the false narrative that Donald Trump rightfully won the 2020 election. The purpose, Hilbert said, is to pull real people in to agree with them, thereby weakening the U.S.
Sometimes such efforts don’t even involve misinformation.
“Racial justice is a real issue in this country,” Hilbert said, but some of the posts on Twitter and Facebook that were drawing attention to the George Floyd video, or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, were “state sponsored manipulation disguised as Black Lives Matter protesters.” Same for some of the accounts that opposed those protesters.
“Russia does it. China does it,” he said. “The idea is to keep us fighting. To inflame the protests.”
Herrin’s family and fiance avoid the social media around him now, including a Facebook page dedicated to Herrin that has more than 12,000 members, where misinformation about the case and conspiracies swirl. But there is a smaller, private group with only a few hundred people that they check in on.
An administrator for that group said they keep it small, and are guarded about verifying people join with their real accounts, to keep things safe and grounded in reality.