By Sophie Lawton
Part 1 of 3 of Alethea's rapid response investigations into the online ecosystem in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As the situation in Afghanistan has become more volatile, unreliable information is being shared across social media. Nation states, the Taliban, and ordinary citizens have knowingly and unknowingly trafficked in such falsehoods. Now, parts of the gaming community have engaged in coordinated inauthentic disinformation campaigns. The campaign claiming a CNN journalist, “Bernie Gores,” had been killed in Afghanistan was later amplified by right-wing accounts that used the narrative to deride the Biden Administration and the American press corps.
On August 16 at 3:40a, an inauthentic Twitter account alleging to represent CNN’s Afghanistan bureau tweeted the claim that an American journalist, “Bernie Gores,” was killed during the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Bernie Gores is a fake name used frequently in online gaming as an effort to get viewers to say a racial slur.
Following this tweet, Reddit user u/vincenotjordi shared the same image and claim on the Reddit board r/pics.  (The post has since been removed from the board for violating guidelines.) It was subsequently shared twice on the same board by another user, u/manoffat. Reddit users recognized the image as popular Twitch streamer Jordie Jordan, also known as Wings of Redemption.  A dedicated reddit board, r/wingsofmemes, is used to create memes and troll Jordan, commonly referred to as “Wings.” 
The meme was shared widely within Reddit’s gaming and streaming communities; the comments on manoffat’s post include continuation of the meme and celebration that it was shared on a mainstream platform like Twitter. Reddit users on the r/wingsofmeme thread recalled other escalations of trolling against Wings, including when his image was put on a list of missing persons following the Beruit blast. 
On Twitter, the fake CNN Afghanistan account that first shared the claim received 2,500 engagements within 48 hours, including more than 500 retweets, before it was suspended. On the same day as the initial tweet, two similar accounts posing as popular media outlets shared the exact same image and statement. Both of these accounts have since been suspended.
Immediately following the tweets, the most popular Quote Tweets and replies to the Bernie Gores content included references to other gaming or streamer related memes and came from primarily accounts associated with the online gaming community.
In the days since, the meme has been co-opted by right-wing and conspiratorial accounts, which have used it to push anti-Biden and anti-press ideas. The account @SaveUSASmallBiz, which has 18,000 followers and claims to be working against the “Radical Left,” used the fake tweet from the CNN Afghanistan account to share negative sentiments about Joe Biden.
Other smaller right-wing Twitter users continue to share the false report in original tweets and in replies to popular accounts posts about the Afghanistan conflict.
There is evidence the meme has spread to other social media platforms; Twitter users who are “in on the joke” have started ridiculing those who believed the narrative.
What started out as a trolling operation in the online gaming community has convinced some individuals that an American journalist has been killed and the mainstream press and social media platforms are complicit in a cover up. The more online accounts that share the fabricated claim, the more likely other susceptible social media users are to believe it. As many of the accounts sharing the claims are right-wing and conspiracy-focused, the meme has gained traction within the echo chamber of right-wing Twitter, ignoring the many fact-checking organizations who have proven it false. Bernie Gores has morphed into misinformation used to promote anti-mainstream media and anti-government sentiments around the Afghanistan crisis.
This case study exemplifies the way parodies, jokes, and other seemingly harmless content can misinform when they target or overlap with the distrust many people have in institutions such as the government and media. Ultimately, disinformation preys on these insecurities and vulnerabilities, so it follows that the Bernie Gores gamer meme was laundered into and amplified by the right-wing online ecosystem to fit its anti-administration, anti-press narrative.