ATLANTA — This much is true: On July 31, 2002, police officers arrested the Rev. Raphael Warnock as they investigated a child-abuse case at a church camp.
This is also true: Prosecutors quickly dropped obstruction charges against Warnock. They called the arrest a misunderstanding; Warnock, they said, was never suspected of abusing a child and actually had proved helpful to the officers. With that, the episode became a minor biographical detail for the man who would later occupy one of the most exalted pulpits in America: Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Now, though, as Warnock seeks a U.S. Senate seat from Georgia, his long-ago arrest has become fodder for his political adversaries — and a prime example of the misleading tactics being deployed to sway voters in the state's Jan. 5 runoff elections. Through highly selective use of facts, amplified and often distorted by partisan media networks, campaigns in Georgia and across the nation are increasingly crossing the line that separates rhetoric from misinformation.
Conservative media outlets, Republican elected officials, GOP donors, at least one of Warnock's former Democratic rivals and incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler all have raised questions about the pastor's arrest, implicitly suggesting a darker scenario than what really happened — a form of guilt by insinuation that can leave voters unsure what to believe.
"Raphael Warnock's Checkered Past Under Scrutiny," one headline read. "Raphael Warnock Refuses to Answer Questions About Child Abuse Investigation," Loeffler's campaign announced in a press release. The statement's page title on Loeffler's website: "Warnock-child-abuse-arrest."
"It's sort of made to spread on social media," said Amanda Sturgill, an associate professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina and author of the book "Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News."
"In the 240 characters [of a tweet], nothing is in there that's not true," Sturgill said. But stripped of nuance and context, she said, the claims become unfair. "It's true, but it's deconstructed from the rest of the story."
Such misinformation may have been inevitable, given the stakes: Georgia's two runoffs will determine the Senate's balance of power.
Democratic activists, meanwhile, recently distributed a video asserting that Loeffler "bought her Senate seat." The charge misrepresents the circumstances of Loeffler's appointment last year to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons. Loeffler pledged to spend $20 million of her personal fortune on her 2020 campaign, but no allegations have emerged that she paid Gov. Brian Kemp for the appointment.
As of Thursday, the video had been viewed more than 5 million times.
In Georgia's other race, incumbent Sen. David Perdue and Republican groups have accused Democrat Jon Ossoff of accepting money from China's communist government, conflating that charge with their claim that he favors socialism.
Actually, Ossoff's documentary filmmaking firm received $5,000 in broadcast licensing fees from a Hong Kong media company. The publicly traded company does not belong to the Chinese government, although a government entity holds 18 percent of its shares, and its chairman opposes independence for Hong Kong from mainland China. Several American mutual funds also own stakes in the company.
To Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning watchdog organization, the claims regarding Warnock's arrest are especially insidious because the underlying police investigation involved an allegation of child abuse.
"It's the one that has the most staying power," Carusone said. "Most people aren't in line to defend that, even if they know it's BS."
In a statement, Terrence Clark, a spokesman for Warnock's campaign, described questions about the arrest as "yet another one of Senator Loeffler's lowest-of-the-low attacks that independent fact-checkers have said is 'mostly false.'"
"The truth is he was protecting the rights of young people to make sure they had a lawyer or a parent present when being questioned," Clark said. "Law enforcement officials later praised him for his help in the investigation."
But Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for Loeffler, defended the campaign's focus on Warnock's arrest.
"There are a lot of questions surrounding not just the arrest but why the police were called in the first place," Lawson said. "If there was nothing wrong and he didn't have any knowledge of it, we are fine. That he is leaning on the fact that the charges were dropped is not sufficient, in our opinion, for an issue as serious as this."
In 2002, Warnock was the 33-year-old senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. For 40 years the church had operated Camp Farthest Out in rural Carroll County, Maryland, where as many as 300 inner-city children spent two weeks each summer.
Investigators from Carroll County's child-abuse unit first visited the camp on July 30. Warnock has said the abuse allegation they were looking into was not of a sexual nature.
When the investigators returned the next morning, according to a police report, they were met by Warnock, another pastor and the chairman of the camp's board of directors.
In the report, Trooper Danielle Barry said she warned the men not to interfere. But Warnock insisted that either he or a lawyer monitor interviews with minors, and he interrupted interrogations of teenage camp counselors at least twice, the report said. At one point, Barry wrote, she "confronted" Warnock and the other pastor. "This investigator explained to the reverends that what they were doing was committing a crime for which they could be arrested."
When the pastors persisted, Barry wrote, they were taken into custody "with the assistance of several uniformed troopers."
Warnock later told the Baltimore Sun that he and his colleague had "acted well within the framework of the law."
"It's just unfortunate that our children had to see their pastors carried away in handcuffs," Warnock said. "My concern simply had to do with the presence of counsel. We cooperated with their investigation."
Three months later, prosecutors dropped the charges.
"What we decided was there was some miscommunication that had occurred with them," Deputy State Attorney Tracy A. Gilmore told a judge, according to the Sun's account. "They were very helpful with the continued investigation. It would not have been a prudent use of resources to have prosecuted them."
'Did you know?'
Eighteen years later, a Democrat running against Warnock in the Senate race shared information on the arrest with Georgia political reporters. But the candidate declined to come forward publicly as the source, so the reporters passed on the story.
Then Warnock finished first among 20 candidates on Election Day, advancing to a runoff against Loeffler. Suddenly, the long-closed, mostly forgotten case resurfaced in a very 2020 manner: in a tweet.
"Did you know? ... In 2002, Warnock was charged with obstructing a police investigation into suspected child abuse at a church-run camp."
The tweet's content was less incendiary for its content than for its source: an account for a film called "An Open Secret," described as a documentary about "Hollywood pedophiles and convicted sex offenders." Tweets about Warnock appeared alongside posts accusing actors of sexual misconduct and urging the account's 57,000 followers to contact judges deemed too lenient with sex offenders.
"An Open Secret" was produced by Gabe Hoffman, a hedge-fund manager who lives in an oceanfront house in Florida valued at more than $39 million, according to tax records. Hoffman has been a significant donor to Republican candidates and committees, federal campaign-finance records show; in 2015, for instance, he gave $100,000 to a super PAC that supported Jeb Bush's 2016 campaign for president.
Hoffman also has associated with figures on the political fringes. Among the venues where he promoted his documentary was a podcast hosted by Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and provocateur, best known for claiming the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was a "false flag," or government-sponsored ruse.
Hoffman did not respond to messages seeking comment.
One day after Hoffman's initial tweets about Warnock, a politician to whom he had donated also shared the arrest story.
"Will the media ask Raphael Warnock why he interfered with the police investigation?" Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Oklahoma, wrote to his 373,000 Twitter followers. "If a Republican helped run a camp for children that was investigated for child abuse — and then was arrested for trying to block the investigation — the media would be asking a lot of questions."
From there, the story ricocheted through conservative news outlets: from Breitbart to Fox News, from the Washington Examiner to Townhall, from the National Review to the Federalist, which published this headline: "Democrat Senate Candidate Raphael Warnock Refuses to Answer Questions About Past Child Abuse Investigation."
Most of the stories linked to the 2002 coverage by the Baltimore Sun and acknowledged Warnock had not been suspected of harming children.
But Sturgill, the communications professor who studies misinformation, said a casual reader would infer a sinister subtext that does not appear to be justified. Getting a fuller picture, she said, would require clicking through to original sources, "and that's a tough road for someone who's just scrolling through Twitter on their lunch hour."
'Why is she doing this?'
After the flood of tweets and stories in mid-November, interest in Warnock's arrest subsided — until the 21st minute of an hourlong debate last Sunday night.
"Rev. Warnock," Loeffler said, addressing her opponent directly, "you were arrested for obstructing police in the arrests in the child abuse investigation. Can you tell me the nature of this child abuse? Why were the police called? What was your knowledge or involvement in this incident?"
Warnock didn't hesitate.
"Here are the facts," he said, "and Kelly Loeffler actually knows them. I was working and trying to make sure that young people who were being questioned by law enforcement had the benefit of counsel, a lawyer, or a parent. ... She knows this, but the question is, why is she doing this?"
Carusone, the Media Matters president, thinks he knows the answer.
For Loeffler, he said, bringing up the arrest helps engage some of the most conservative Republican voters — in particular, those who believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims a global cabal of pedophiles secretly pull the strings in government, business and entertainment. It's a powerful motivator for believers, he said, and could prove decisive in a close election.
"The subject matter — child abuse — overlaps very intensely with the larger QAnon community," Carusone said. "Any time you put that one on the table, it activates and energizes that audience."