Fake News Proliferates Following Two Mass Shootings – Rolling Stone
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In the Wake of Two Mass Shootings, Fake News Proliferates on Social Media

Mass shooting events are a prime opportunity for far-right trolls to push their own political agendas — and this time it had to do with antifa and Charlottesville

Flowers and signs are seen at a makeshift memorial after the shooting that left 21 people dead at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart in El Paso, Texas, on August 5, 2019.

A makeshift memorial in El Paso, Texas, where a mass shooting left at least 22 dead.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

After a tragic mass shooting event, many struggle to make sense of the bloodshed and unnecessary violence. Unfortunately, this often results in the spread of inaccurate information intended to mislead or confuse readers, and the response to the deadly El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, shootings over the weekend were no exception. In the wake of reports indicating that the alleged El Paso shooter was a Trump supporter whose manifesto made reference to far-right rhetoric about immigration, right-wing pundits immediately tried to distance themselves from the alleged shooter, blaming the shooting on everything from violent video games to drag queens.

It wasn’t particularly surprising that many on the far right threw their weight behind one particular rumor: that antifa, or far-left antifascists, were responsible for the attacks. And this happened via a pattern of expertly orchestrated misinformation campaigns on the right that extremism researchers say are sadly par for the course following mass shooting attacks.

Rumblings of this conspiracy theory began almost immediately after the El Paso shooting, following emerging reports that the alleged shooter had posted a manifesto on 8chan prior to the attack, referencing his desire to imitate the Christchurch massacre as well as his motivation to curb the Latino “invasion” into Texas. Despite the first few signs that the shooter was motivated at least in large part by white-supremacist beliefs, some on the far right latched onto a Daily Caller article from July 30th, which accused antifa of “planning a terror campaign and siege of El Paso, Texas in an attempt to raise awareness of alleged abuses at the U.S.-Mexico border.” The report was based on a tweet by citizen journalist Andy Ngo, who became something of a cause célèbre on the far right after he was attacked by antifascist counter-protesters at a Proud Boys rally in Portland last June.

Of course, there was no evidence that the “Border Resistance” military tour was organized by antifa or promoted as such, with one organizer telling the National Observer that it was intended to be a series of nonviolent actions to raise awareness of human rights violations at the border. “Nowhere do we say that we’re antifa or part of antifa,” she said. “We never even said anything about fascism.” The Daily Caller later added a clarification noting this. But the claim in the piece was bolstered by comments made by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who alluded to the story on Fox News: “I just saw the last couple of days where Antifa is posting they want to come to El Paso for a 10-day siege,” Patrick said. “Clear message [to] Antifa: Stay out of El Paso. Stay out of Texas, basically.”

Such rumblings continued well into Monday, when a screengrab of the suspected El Paso shooter’s alleged profile on the social reputation website MyLife, which purportedly was “edited” by liberals to change his political views from Democratic to Republican, quickly went viral. (In reality, the suspect did not have a MyLife profile at all prior to the attacks.) One prominent far-right streamer and conspiracy theorist, Brendan Dilley, was suspended from Twitter after law enforcement sources told him antifa was behind the attack, according to Right Wing Watch; further, Rick Boswick, a member of the Canadian far-right group the Yellow Vests, also posted a video expressing his belief that the media was “scrubbing the facts” associated with the El Paso shooting in order to build a leftist-friendly narrative, claiming that witnesses had initially claimed in news interviews that the shooter was a member of the “radical left slash communist movement.”

The antifa conspiracy theory gained more traction when more information started to emerge about the alleged Dayton shooter, who fatally shot nine people outside of a bar in a popular downtown district in the early hours of Sunday morning. Unlike the El Paso shooter, the Dayton shooter undoubtedly harbored left-leaning rather than extremist right-wing views: Many on Twitter shared screengrabs of his social media account, in which he appeared to self-identify as an “anime/metal fan/leftist” and expressed his support for such candidates as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. BuzzFeed News also reported that he was a member of a local “pornogrind” metal band, with another band member in the scene tweeting he was, “another dime a dozen Ohio grind dude who caped progressive politics while treating women like shit.”

Based on these reported leftist bona fides, right-wing pundits immediately began speculating that the Dayton shooter was a member of antifa. But aside from a retweet of an antifa account, his Twitter does not contain any references to antifascist activity; nor did he appear to engage in any local antifa action, which would be expected in Dayton, an antifascist hotspot, says Emily Gorcenski, a far-right researcher and creator of First Vigil, which tracks far-right extremism in the United States. “Typically what we see is antifascist activists in they’re mostly focused on their local issues. The folks in Portland they talk about Portland; the folks in D.C. talk about D.C.,” says Gorcenski. “He didn’t talk about any antifascist activities.”

Perhaps more importantly, the shooter reportedly had a history of making misogynistic, violent threats, circulating “rape or kill” lists with his classmates’ names on them while he was still in high school. The fact that he was clearly deeply immersed in toxic masculinity, as well as the fact that he attacked the outside of a bar rather than a border control center or another ostensible target for antifascist action, appears to indicate that the Dayton attack “was not politically motivated and is not equivalent to the El Paso shooting [in terms of being inspired by political ideology],” says Gorcenski.

While conspiracy theories that stir anti-leftist sentiment after national tragedies are undoubtedly toxic, they also aren’t particularly new, says Joan Donovan, PhD, director of technology and social change at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center. After events of mass violence, far-right pundits will immediately try to “activate their networks to try to get [false] information to trend online” as an attempt to confuse the media or deflect from the central conversation. (Usually, this comes right after those on the far right falsely identify the shooter in question as a popular YouTuber, a meme borne out of chan culture.) Last year, for instance, a number of individuals on the far right known for promoting fake news stories about leftists linked both the Las Vegas, Nevada, concert shooter and the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooter to “antifa.”

Broadly speaking we’ve entered a period of time in regards to the internet where there’s a lot of blame and misinformation that is going to be promoted. There’s the ability to construct your own narrative,” says Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. After a mass shooting, social media platforms play host to a “battle for the narrative…and it’s not necessarily for the public good or for society.” 

It’s also not surprising that many of these rumors and conspiracy theories would point the finger specifically at antifa, a term used to describe a loose collective of anti-fascist groups that show up to counterprotest at far-right rallies. Over the past few months, anti-antifa rhetoric has sharply increased, especially following the widely publicized attacks on Ngo, which drew condemnation on both sides of the political aisle. President Donald Trump has threatened to label antifa a terrorist group, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is calling for legislation to classify antifascist protesters as a domestic terrorism threat. This is in spite of the fact that white supremacist violence is verifiably on the rise, and that FBI director Christopher Wray explicitly told lawmakers at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month that the majority of the FBI’s domestic terrorism cases “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”

Such misinformation is intended to bolster the narrative on the far right that the left poses a violent threat that is tantamount to that posed by far-right extremists — despite the fact that “anything that reinforces this narrative of a violent left and a supposed equivalency is really disingenuous and dangerous,” Keegan Hankes, senior analyst at Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), previously told Rolling Stone.

Given the massive amount of national news attention being placed on the recent shootings, it’s terrifyingly easy to promote misinformation. In one particularly cynical instance of a content creator capitalizing on the discussion, Prager U, a far-right media outlet that was invited to President Trump’s recent White House media summit, released a video on Monday morning with the hashtag #TheCharlottesvilleLie, propagating the (verifiably untrue) conspiracy theory that Trump never uttered the words “there are fine people on both sides” when addressing the violence at the Unite the Right rally in 2017. (A Politico transcript of his comments after Charlottesville proves otherwise.) Though only tangentially connected to news of the shootings, the deep well of emotions on both sides of the political aisle clearly played a role in the hashtag briefly trending.

Donovan calls the release of the video “morally reprehensible.” Gorcenski viewed the video as an attempt to deflect from the fact that the El Paso shooter was influenced by Trump’s rhetoric: It “shows what the weaknesses are in the right and the far-right. It shows what they are trying to do by seizing a narrative and it tells you what narratives hurt them.” Many on the left were outraged, using the hashtag to express their outrage at Prager U and at Twitter for boosting it.

In response to requests for comment, Twitter sent Rolling Stone its policy guidelines for trending topics, which do not explicitly prohibit false information, though it notes that “in some cases, we may also consider the newsworthiness of the content, or if it is in the public interest when evaluating potential violations. In these cases, the content might continue to trend on our platform.)

As more news reports emerge about both shootings, given the deeply divisive current climate on social media, it’s more important than ever to be able to identify conspiracy theories as they pop up — to understand not just why they’re wrong, but how they become embedded into the public conversation, and how tragic events create a vast opportunity for trolls and bad actors to cause the cycle to churn anew. “Given the moment we’re in,” says Donovan, “where many people are trying to have complex conversations about race, to have this piece of content at this moment begin to steer us away from this conversation about the culture of white supremacy is meant to antagonize and enflame the public.” 

Correction Tues., Aug. 6, 11:00 am: An earlier version of this piece quoted Gorcenski as saying that Dayton was a hotspot of antifascist activity. Gorcenski actually said that it was a hotspot of fascist activity.

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