PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — It’s now as predictable as the calls for thought and prayer: A mass shooting leaves many dead, and wild conspiracy theories and misinformation about the carnage soon follow.
It happened afterwards sandy hookaccording to parklandfollowing the Orlando nightclub shooting and following the fatal shooting spree earlier this month at a Buffalo Grocery Store. Within hours of Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, another rash began as netizens made unsubstantiated claims about the Man referred to as Sagittarius and his possible motives.
Unsubstantiated claims quickly surfaced on Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms that the shooter was an illegal immigrant or transgender resident in the United States. They were accompanied by well-known conspiracy theories that suggested the entire shooting was somehow staged.
The claims reflect broader issues with racism and intolerance towards transgender people and are an attempt to blame the shooting on minority groups, who are already suffering higher rates online harassment and hate crimeaccording to disinformation expert Jaime Longoria.
“It’s a tactic that serves two purposes: it avoids real conversations about the issue (gun violence) and it scapegoats and blames people who don’t want to face reality,” said Longoria, director of research at the Disinfo Defense League, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating racial misinformation.
In the hours after the shooting, posts falsely claiming the gunman was living in the country illegally went viral, with some users adding embellishments including that he was “on the run from border police”.
“He was an illegal alien wanted from El Salvador for murder,” read a tweet that was liked and retweeted hundreds of times. “This is blood on Biden’s hands and should never have happened.”
The man who authorities say carried out the shooting, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, is a US citizen, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference on Tuesday.
Other social media users used images of innocent netizens to misidentify them as the shooter and claim he was transgender. On the online message board 4Chan, users generously shared the photos and discussed a plan to label the shooter as transgender without any evidence to back it up.
A post on Twitter, which has since been deleted, showed a photo of a trans woman holding a green bottle to her mouth, looking at the camera, and headphones hanging from one ear.
“BREAKING NEWS: PROTECTOR’S IDENTITY REVEALED,” the user claimed, saying the shooter is a “FEMBOY” with a channel on YouTube.
None of this was true. The photo actually showed a 22-year-old trans woman named Sabrina who lives in New York City. Sabrina, who asked that her last name not be published for privacy reasons, confirmed to The Associated Press that the photo belonged to her and also said that she was not connected to the alleged YouTube account.
Sabrina said she received harassing responses on social media, particularly messages claiming she was the shooter. She responded to a series of posts circulating the misidentified image and demanded that the posts be deleted.
“This whole ordeal is just horrifying,” Sabrina told the AP.
Another widely shared photo showed a transgender woman wearing a Coca-Cola sweatshirt and black skirt. A second photo showed the same woman wearing a black NASA shirt with a red skirt. Those photos didn’t show the shooter either — they showed a Reddit user named Sam, who confirmed her identity to AP on Wednesday. The AP doesn’t use Sam’s last name to protect her privacy.
“It’s not me, I don’t even live in Texas,” Sam wrote in a Reddit post.
Authorities have not released any information about the shooter’s sexuality or gender identification.
Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar lumped both baseless claims about Ramos into a single, now-deleted, tweet that also misspelled his name. “It’s a transgender leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos,” Gosar tweeted Tuesday night.
Gosar’s office did not respond with a request for comment.
In some cases, misinformation about mass shootings or other events is being spread by well-meaning social media users trying to be helpful. In other cases, it may be the work of scammers trying to start fake fundraisers or draw attention to their website or organization.
Then there are the trolls who seem to be doing it for fun.
According to Ben Decker, founder and CEO of digital investigation consultancy Memetica, fringe online communities, including on 4chan, often use mass shootings and other tragedies as an opportunity to sow chaos, troll the public, and spread harmful narratives.
“It’s very intentional and intentional that they celebrate these types of incidents to also influence what the mainstream conversation actually is,” Decker said. “There is a nihilistic desire to prove yourself in these types of communities by successfully trolling the public. So when you’re able to lead a campaign that produces that kind of outcome, you gain a certain kind of credibility within the group.”
For the communities that bear the brunt of such malicious online attacks, however, false blame fuels fears of further discrimination and violence.
Something as seemingly innocuous as a transphobic comment on social media can trigger an act of violence against a transgender person, said Jaden Janak, a graduate student at the University of Texas and a junior fellow at the Center for Applied Transgender Studies.
“These children and adults who were murdered yesterday just lived their lives,” said Janak on Wednesday. “They didn’t know that yesterday would be their last day. And as trans people, we’re afraid of that fear all the time.”
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