This morning, Rachel Catania, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, and a survivor of the recent shooting, was asked on the air if she was a crisis actor or a plant. It was a staggering moment of television and a sign of just how quickly conspiracy theories pushed by pro-Trump media can go mainstream.
How did this happen?
Conspiracy theories following mass shootings are usually born on online message boards 8chan and 4chan and spread like wildfire on social media. The users of these communities game social media platforms and infiltrate the feeds of unsuspecting people with fake news. The same happened with conspiracy theories suggesting that the Parkland students aren’t who they claim to be. These stories were then validated by a host of extreme right influencers such as Donald Trump Jr., National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, and discredited author Dinesh D'Souza, making them even more believable to anyone who stumbled upon them online. The furor around this conspiracy theory got to a point that mainstream media was forced to address it.
Tech companies have a lot to answer for here. It’s unfortunately predictable that conspiracy theories will spread online after a mass shooting . Thus, as soon as the students -- many of whom are minors -- began to speak out after the Parkland high school shooting, tech companies had a responsibility to protect them, not from political disagreement but from conspiracy theories about them, especially since they often included details about the students’ private lives and those of their families.
Buzzfeed asked Facebook for comment this morning and the company spokesperson said that while Facebook is aware of this hateful content, it doesn’t have “policies in place that require people to tell the truth.” This is a cop-out. Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomena. Facebook and other companies have allowed hostile actors to easily weaponize their platforms before, and in this case, the platforms were weaponized against minors. Half measures, enacted days after conspiracy theories began bubbling up online, simply aren’t good enough.
No one should have to endure this kind of abuse online. In this instance, tech companies had a particular responsibility to protect minors who’d just endured a horrific mass shooting and were advocating for themselves. And, as you’ll see from these examples we’ve collected, they failed.
Before spreading to major platforms like YouTube and Facebook, these conspiracy theories started in the dregs of the internet, on places like 4chan, moving swiftly to bigger forums like Reddit.
Numerous YouTube videos have spread hoaxes about the Marjory Stoneman students speaking out. In some cases, as of when this is published, they still are.
Considering this happens after every attack, the top YouTube search results are even more egregious. YouTube could have anticipated the influx of false conspiracies. pic.twitter.com/HnIuXVEiLB
— Jane Lytvynenko 🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️ (@JaneLytv) February 21, 2018
Most of these videos are about just one student: David Hogg
The most trending video on YouTube was a conspiracy theory video attacking Hogg. YouTube eventually pulled it.
The same user uploaded a video claiming that Hogg couldn’t remember his lines. That was also removed by YouTube.
One video that pushes the conspiracy theory that Hogg is an actor has 149,000 views so far and was posted by a conspiracy theory YouTube page that claims the earth is flat.
Another video with 100,000 views from a page that posts videos en masse with automated voice-overs features images of Hogg and fellow student Emma Gonzalez. It attacks Hogg at length, citing conspiracy theories about his father. The text for this video was taken from a Freedom Daily post that got very little engagement otherwise.
One video that accused Hogg of being a crisis actor with an arrest record was viewed over 15,000 times before it was eventually removed.
One video that calls Hogg “crisis actor superstar” has had certain features disabled, but it is still possible to click through to watch.
One video used Hogg’s previous appearance on a CBS local station in August 2017 to “raise questions” about Hogg, clearly a reference to the conspiracy theories.
Many videos have largely yet to take off. There are still numerous videos attacking David Hogg. One video alleges connections between Hogg, fellow student Cameron Kasky, “Pizzagate,” and mind control programs. The video cites 4chan, and has less than two thousand views.
One video attacking Emma Gonzalez has less than a thousand views.
A number of Facebook posts were spreading hoaxes about the students. One post had over 95,000 shares before it was deleted. That post referred back to a viral tweet alleging a conspiracy theory based on a yearbook. A 4chan post had also referred to that tweet. As Snopes noted, that claim has been debunked by multiple Douglas High students, including one who actually showed the yearbook in a video.
There’s a photo going around claiming David Hogg did not attend Douglas, but a school in California. Here’s a video to debunk that: pic.twitter.com/hJsMNSdAsF
— Joey (@_Joey_Wong) February 21, 2018
This wasn’t the only post on Facebook to go viral. Two posts by the same individual were each shared tens of thousands of times.
This is how absurd, gaslighting “crisis actor” theories go viral.
One @facebook post from this person has 111,000+ shares. Another has 23,000.
This is one person, two posts.
Imagine the millions and millions of people crackpot theories like this are reaching and influencing. pic.twitter.com/VU7cKCJhXq
— Micah Grimes (@MicahGrimes) February 20, 2018
Numerous Facebook pages shared lies about the students. The Mad World News article attacking Hogg was shared on numerous Facebook pages and groups:
A Facebook video from 'The Pissed off American' page attacking Hogg has been shared over 11,000 times.
The verified Facebook page of model and reality television star Mindy Robinson posted a video of Hogg and speculated about conspiracy theories.
Facebook page Liberal Loon likened videos of Hogg to the Hitler Youth, the youth organization of the Nazi Party in Germany.
A TruthFeed post attacking survivors was shared to multiple Facebook pages.
No post was shared more across Facebook than Gateway Pundit’s attack on Hogg. The post was originally shared on Gateway Pundit’s page and that of its White House correspondent Lucian Wintrich.
Aside from those pages, this Gateway Pundit post smearing Hogg was shared over 75 other times on Facebook pages of various groups -- this is in addition to all the individuals who shared it.
The TruePundit fake news story attacking Hogg spread far and wide on Facebook.
These conspiracies have spilled over into radio. Hosts on WHPT-FM near Tampa, FL, discussed the conspiracy theory at length, giving it credence.
Hosts on WAEB-AM near Allentown, Pennsylvania pushed the conspiracy theory that Hogg was a crisis actor, telling listeners to “check it out,” and saying they put up the claim on the station’s social media and on its website.
This Florida 'student' seems to get around. https://t.co/YE5MJq0wFi
— 790WAEB (@790WAEB) February 21, 2018
UPDATE: More radio stations have either pushed or given some legitimacy to the “crisis actor” conspiracy theory.
Hosts on WRNO-FM near New Orleans, LA, called Hogg a “crisis actor kid” and mocked his reaction to the shooting.
A host on KSEV-AM near Houston, TX, initially doubted the “crisis actor” conspiracy theory, but then suggested that the caller who pushed it may have been correct. The host claimed the caller made a “fair point” when he rhetorically asked, “Do you believe anything that comes out of CNN?” The host also said “the basket of biased press has lied to us so much that we can’t take them at face value.”
The hosts on WLNI-FM near Lynchburg, VA, speculated back-and-forth about the conspiracy theory as a plausible story. One of the hosts said Hogg “insists he's not a crisis actor but the footage doesn't look good,” adding “who knows” if the conspiracy theory was true.
Hosts on KUPD-FM near Tempe, AZ, said, “I don’t want to buy into this nonsense, it’ll make me crazy. But I don’t think it’s farfetched to think that groups would hire eloquent, well-spoken kids to sell their point of view after a tragedy.”
One of the hosts on Chasing the Truth, broadcast on KFXR-AM near Dallas, TX, called Hogg a “hired crisis actor,” adding, “You’re bringing in an actor to deal with emotions and heartache.”
Cristina López G. contributed research.