After any mass shooting, disinformation spreads online like wildfire. It happens immediately, created and disseminated on purpose, often in real time as the event is unfolding. This week, even as the Parkland high school shooter was still at large, posters on 4chan and 8chan immediately went to work spreading false information about the shooter being a linked to a white supremacist militia, the most widely reported of the multiple hoaxes about the massacre found online. And in the aftermath of the tragedy, lies and hoaxes about the survivors who have been speaking out against school massacres have gained traction in certain corners.
Dr. Kate Starbird, a professor at University of Washington, has done a lot of research on what she refers to as alternative narratives. She writes: “Over time, we noted that a similar kind of rumor kept showing up, over and over again, after each of the man-made crisis events — a conspiracy theory or ‘alternative narrative’ of the event that claimed it either didn’t happen or that it was perpetrated by someone other than the current suspects.” Starbird also highlights the role that botnets play in disseminating alternative narratives.
What Starbird describes has played out time and again. What’s different about the Parkland shooting is how quickly and powerfully survivors began speaking out. Some students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School immediately took to social media calling on President Donald Trump and Congress to do something about guns and calling out commentators like Fox’s Tomi Lahren for saying now wasn’t the time to talk about guns. David Hogg, a student journalist who interviewed students on lockdown during the shooting, made several TV appearances demanding leaders take action. Another student, Emma Gonzalez, called out the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the legislators who do its bidding. Melissa Falkowski, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, went on CNN calling on Congress to do more to “to end gun violence, to keep our kids safe." Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed, screamed at President Trump on CNN to “do something.” Student survivors are organizing a march on Washington D.C..
And now, Parkland survivors are targets for fake news campaigns, conspiracy theories, harassment and doxxing. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has already suggested that the entire shooting is a false flag, which implies that all of the survivors are actors in an elaborate hoax. As survivors speak up, there are already attempts to attack and discredit them individually.
Survivor David Hogg has been the target of conspiracy theories since he began speaking out. The day after the shooting, one far-right account noted in a since-deleted tweet that Hogg was suspicious for speaking so eloquently.
Hyperpartisan site True Pundit also ran with it.
Donald Trump Jr. liked tweets sharing the conspiracy theory.
One conspiracy theory site alleged that Hogg was a plant with a “radical agenda” because he used an earpiece from a remote location while talking with an anchor in a studio. It’s unclear how else he was supposed to hear what was being asked.
One popular theme that is making rounds online is that the survivors are “crisis actors.” Conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer said as much on Twitter.
Gateway Pundit accused student survivors of “partying like rock stars” based solely on them smiling in pictures, saying, “The photos come off as if they were promo stills for Glee: The High School Massacre.”
A meme circling in The Storm conspiracy theory subreddit also attacked the students for posing for a picture.
Numerous YouTube videos, some with hundreds of thousands of views, have been published about crisis actors in the few days since the shooting. A typical #Qanon user said that the imperative was to “expose” these students “and have them sent to jail.”
Users on 4chan accused Alhadeff of being a paid actor, not a grieving mother who had just lost her child. 4chan users also claimed that the students who countered Tomi Lahren on Twitter were plants. A student who appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Emily Kolber, was also accused of being a paid actor.
It’s on all of us to have the survivors’ backs as they continue to speak out. The kind of abuse they’ll be subjected to is predictable. We can track where it originates and how it spreads. Media outlets covering the shooting need to be aware of these trolling operations and include them in their reporting. Tech companies must protect survivors from abuse and stop the spread of false information. We should all think carefully and confirm facts before we share any stories and information about survivors online.
Research by Nina Mast, Natalie Martinez, Cristina López G., and Alex Kaplan