How Amanda Knox’s Trial Was the Dawn of the Fake News Era

Amanda Knox heads to Italy this weekend to “face her fears” where much of the population still think she’s guilty of murdering her roommate 12 years ago. Like Steve Bannon, Knox is another American export Italians can’t seem to keep out.

But the visit is a good time to remember how the online phenomenon of Amanda Knox was a portent of the Age of Trump, with its elevation and celebration of unreason, as the digital age linked and energized what most charitably could be called “suspicious minds.”

In 2007, Twitter was just coming online, with 5,000 Tweets per day. Facebook was still in its data-harvesting infancy, with less than 100 million users. But the Amanda Knox story tapped into something previously inchoate, a vein of irrationality, rage, misogyny, pettiness and paranoia that — as the world has since come to understand — has bubbled along in the human species, unshared and unspoken, until it was enabled and amplified by the World Wide Web.

On the night after Halloween 2007, British student Meredith Kercher was murdered in her home in the Italian hill town Perugia, during what was most likely a burglary gone wrong, a tragedy I investigated for the 2012 book The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trial of Amanda Knox. Knox, Kercher’s oddball American hippie roommate, immediately attracted the authorities’ attention, for being on the crime scene when they arrived and acting in ways they found inappropriate, like making out with her boyfriend and doing yoga stretches. Local police, racing to solve the case as students fled the university town, made a mess of the crime scene and committed forensic blunders in the lab, among other mistakes. The local magistrate, afflicted with indigenous superstitions, proclaimed the murder a Satanic rite, setting off a global media feeding frenzy — and something else that, in hindsight, was just the beginning.

The Amanda Knox phenomenon marked the first time a bizarre cult of credulity emerged online, with tens of thousands of people energetically subscribing to the most heinous possible scenario, while refusing to accept more reasonable alternatives. A now-familiar scenario played out: Vicious social media swarms led by trolls using online pseudonyms. Accusations of fake news hurled at reputable outlets, while demonstrably fake news was published regularly. There was doxxing. Lawmen attacked as shills. Journalists accused of “being on the payroll.” A theory in which everyone is connected by money or in the case of the Magistrate’s version of the case, by deviant secret cults with midnight membership lists who meet by the light of the moon.

Anyone who witnessed the phenomenon could not have been surprised by Pizzagate, which revealed millions of people willing to believe Hillary Clinton ran a Satanic child sex ring beneath a popular Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. All the while, many of these same people refused to acknowledge the testimony of legal and ethics experts like former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, or former FBI Director James Comey, regarding the corruption of Donald Trump.

The online spectacle that was the Knox phenomenon played out mostly in what was then called “the blogosphere.” Private citizens with dubious qualifications, strong opinions and, apparently, lots of time on their hands, set up websites devoted to parsing the case from the two opposing sides, the innocent or the guilty — or, as the Italians called them, the innocentisti and colpevolisti.

Like the Pizzagates that would follow, the Knox conspiracy had its own version of a “deep state” — this one, a supposedly vast and fantastically well-funded American public relations machine churning away, producing lying journalists and lying defense experts for the Knox family. The family was in fact, a middle class and not very media-savvy clan stumbling around in a web of morning television producers eager to for family “gets.”

The case also featured allegations of mental instability in a leader who would insist upon his fantastically excellent health. A Seattle newspaper criticized the case and quoted unnamed legal experts who reportedly believed Magistrate Giuliano Mignini to be “mentally unstable.” Eleven days later, Mignini filed a defamation claim. “I am quite a healthy man,” the BBC reported Mignini as saying. “I don’t go to the doctor much, and I have never visited a psychologist.”

The investigation, trial and appeals dragged on for more than seven years before the charges were finally thrown out in 2015. But by then, tens of thousands of commenters on both sides of the innocent-guilty divide had trolled each other about the main characters in the trial as if they knew them personally, and could see into their minds and read there the vilest or purest of motives.

Peggy Ganong, for example, a Seattle-based French translator who operated a website called Perugia Murder File, told me that she became convinced that Amanda Knox was guilty after looking at a photograph and deciding that Knox “looked like a killer.” The site published translations of legal documents, and photos of Knox and family members with snide captions. Ganong, whose lived a few blocks from Knox’s family, moderated discussion under the online name “Skeptical Bystander,” but was eventually outed, and filed a complaint to police, saying she was being harassed.

PMF has gone dark, but another particularly virulent site remains online and still going after Knox. True Justice for Meredith Kercher, (TJMK) was founded by a New Jersey-based British American named Peter Quenell who told me he was a financier and claimed to have consulted for the United Nations.

No pro-Knox activity was too small to escape his notice. Quenell once posted the website and pictures of the principal of a school where a teacher and classroom had created a video in support of Amanda Knox. Piling on, Ganong’s website encouraged members to write emails and to send letters to the teacher.

For a while, the TJMK site amplified articles by a fake forensic expert, calling herself Miss Represented, who opined regularly on Amanda Knox’s psychopathy. When I found out she was a young employee of a social media firm based in the U.K., she begged me not to use her name, writing: “Miss Represented was only ever supposed to be a place for my own reflections, some of them I still stand by, some of them I’ve rethought as I’ve gotten a little older and bit more mature.”

As Knox was convicted, and then released after an appeal, TJMK’s followers trolled and insulted bloggers arguing that Amanda Knox and her boyfriend has been railroaded. An army of avid self-styled CSI experts emerged from basements to join threads debating evidence, studying bloody photos, sometimes even enlarging and publishing horrifying police photographs of Kercher’s body — photos released to journalists by lawyers involved in the case.

Like the right wing fringe “journalists” and online avatars who purvey fake news now — including undercover videographer James Keefe, far-right internet troll Jacob Wohl, and anonymous conspiracy provocateur, the amorphous entity known as Q-Anon — the bloggers sometimes seemed to have access to real information or real people in the case, including sensitive court documents and maybe even access to the prosecutor himself.

The story was always riddled with alternative facts. I went to Italy assuming I was going to write a book about why an American girl turned into Charles Manson. After a month on the ground in Italy, I realized many reported “facts” were not in the police record in Italy. At one point, I emailed Quenell to ask where he had learned that Knox and Sollecito were found with a mop and bucket outside the bloody crime scene. He had reported that but it was nowhere in the official record, and not even the prosecutor would confirm it.

Quenell shot me one of the scarier emails I’ve received — as a female political journalist I’ve had my share — about he was going to “train his scope” on my apartment in Manhattan, closing with “how are the kiddies?”

In Italy, the Committee to Protect Journalists was so alarmed by police and prosecutorial attacks on journalists that it formally objected in a letter to the Italian judiciary.   Perugia police forcibly entered one Italian innocentisti blogger’s apartment, without a warrant or showing their badges, shoved him to the ground, struck him, handcuffed him, and climbed on top of him, crushing his air supply, according to CPJ.  The organizations also noted that Mignini had a history of hauling in or charging journalists whose coverage displeased him. He imprisoned a veteran crime reporter, threw an American writer out of the country, and filed criminal defamation lawsuits against Italian and American publications that questioned his theory of the Knox case.

Now, the American president has called journalists “the enemy of the people,” individual journalists have been subjected to obscene verbal abuse at his rallies and newsrooms were forced to hire extra security in the wake of one massacre. Reporters Without Borders dropped the U.S below Botswana and Romania in its annual ranking for press freedom this year because of an “intense climate of fear.”

The Trumpification of the public discourse that we are used to now — the toxic haze of conspiracy theories, the frothing, vicious online partisanship, shrieks of ‘fake news’ at messengers delivering real information and the abuse of experts — was not the norm as recently as 10 years ago. But the Amanda Knox phenomenon previewed what the entire internet would become.

Italy’s highest court threw out the conviction in 2015. This year, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Italians to pay Knox damages for Perugia’s bad police work. The case against Knox is now widely believed to have been a case of wrongful imprisonment. But for millions, that remains fake news.

Nina Burleigh is author of the 2012 book The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trial of Amanda Knox.

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