As police in Gilroy, California, processed the crime scene at a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday that left three people dead, Dilbert comic strip creator Scott Adams decided to make some money off the tragedy.
In a message to his more than 300,000 Twitter followers, Adams urged any Gilroy shooting witnesses to make an account on an app he co-founded that allows experts to make money by discussing issues over video calls. By signing up for the app, “Interface by WhenHub,” Adams claimed, witnesses could “set your price” and make money by selling interviews about the mass murder, while Adams’ company took a 20 percent cut.
“If you were a witness to the #GilroyGarlicFestivalshooting please sign on to Interface by WhenHub (free app) and you can set your price to take calls,” Adams tweeted. “Use keyword Gilroy.”
Adams soon faced an online backlash, with Republican pollster Frank Luntz and others accusing Adams, who has rebranded himself as pro-Trump internet personality, of using the shooting to promote his app.
No actual Gilroy survivors appear to have taken Adams up on his offer. As of this writing, the only avowed “expert” for the search term “Gilroy” available on the site appears to be a troll who lists his other topics as “Scott Adams being vile” and “journalism basics.” He’s willing to talk about any of those issues for $50 an hour.
During a Periscope livestream that Adams posted Monday, he announced that his cut of any payments would have been 20 percent, but claimed that he expected that most witnesses using the WhenHub app would set the price at zero, with his potential earnings only “in the 5 to 10 dollar range.” That appears to contradict Adams’s earlier tweet, in which he encouraged shooting survivors to “set your price.”
Adams didn’t respond to a request for an interview, and instead mocked the Daily Beast’s attempt to reach out to him on Twitter.
Noting that he had been contacted by The Daily Beast, Adams exhorted his Twitter followers: “Let’s talk about the fake outrage trolls.”
“That's really cynical—really, really cynical,” Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, told The Daily Beast. “I imagine there are some people who are going to do it, but I also imagine news media are going to use good old-fashioned methods to find these witnesses, just like they would for any other story.”
Dalglish added: “There's a reason why media cover these events, and as a reader and a viewer and a citizen, I'm disturbed by the thought that presumably this guy is going to make money. If I'm a witness, my goal in life is not going to be to make money off of this horrible, horrible incident. That doesn't make anybody look good, does it? And I used to like that cartoon.”
During his Periscope video, Adams claimed many of his critics on social media were just taking part in an organized campaign against him, saying that critics frequently calling him a “grifter” and a “ghoul” amounted to proof that his detractors were acting in concert.
“What this is about is Trump,” said Adams, who has frequently supported and defended President Donald Trump on social media and elsewhere. “The pushback I'm getting is fueled by the intense hatred of Trump and of anybody who's ever said anything good about Trump.”
Adams, who describes himself as a WhenHub’s chief strategy officer, did concede that he was using the shooting to promote his app.
“For those of you who are saying, ‘Scott, you grifter, you’re using this to get attention for your app,’” Adams said. “Well, obviously, yes.”
This isn’t Adams’s first bizarre attempt to promote WhenHub, which he envisioned in 2018 as a place where experts could share advice from topics ranging from “buying a horse” to “shy bladder recovery methods.” After a helicopter pilot was killed in June after his helicopter crashed into a New York City building, Adams offered $500 to any witness who would talk about the crash on his app. None appeared to have taken the offer.
Anyone who signed up to discuss the shooting could also have been paid in the WHEN Token, a cryptocurrency Adams has used to fund his app that is currently worth slightly more than one cent. Shortly before Adams announced WhenHub’s cryptocurrency aspect in 2017, Dilbert watchers noticed that the characters in the comic, who are typically suspicious of poorly understood business crazes like blockchain, were suddenly running straightforward explanations of blockchain in an apparent effort to drum up interest in Adams’s cryptocurrency.
Dalglish, meanwhile, said beyond the ugly spectacle of someone trying to make money from tragedy, Adams’ pitch raises ethical issues.
“If you consider him [Scott Adams] to be a journalist, and we consider most cartoonists to be journalists, there is an ethical problem here,” she said. “It's an ethical standard that we don't pay sources—at least in this country—and that's what's happening here. Sources are being paid.”
Dalglish predicted that Adams' app and his promoting it for coverage of a mass shooting will be a case study taught this fall in her journalism school's ethics classes.
Adams, for his part, responded defiantly to his critics.
“I do plan to do the same thing again in the future,” he said on his Periscope livestream, “Now if it’s a mass shooting, I might think twice.”
And then he laughed.