How bots and far-right figures spread a lie about Beto O'Rourke and the Odessa shooting
A likely bot network, QAnon accounts, a TPUSA advisory council member, the Proud Boys, Sebastian Gorka, and a member of Trump's 2020 advisory board helped push the false claim
Multiple far-right figures helped a likely network of bot accounts spread a false claim on social media connecting former Texas congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke with an alleged mass shooter in Texas.
On August 31, a gunman in Odessa and Midland, TX, killed seven people. While the alleged shooter’s motive is still unknown, a false claim appeared afterward on social media that the alleged shooter had an O’Rourke sticker on his car (authorities said there is no evidence for this) and reportedly spread with the help of likely bot accounts. Other crucial players that spread the falsity included multiple accounts supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory, a member of Turning Point USA’s advisory council, far-right gang the Proud Boys, former Trump White House adviser and current Sinclair contributor Sebastian Gorka, and current Trump campaign adviser Tony Shaffer.
How the lie spread
On the afternoon of September 1, Twitter account @suemo54 tweeted that the shooter was “a Democrat Socialist who has a Beto sticker on his truck.” As a data analyst noted on Twitter, even though the @suemo54 account had few followers, the tweet containing the false claim received hundreds and eventually thousands of retweets. A misinformation-tracking firm told The Washington Post that “the post appears to have been amplified mainly by bot accounts.” The account was later suspended but has since been reinstated.
The @suemo54 account’s Facebook page has previously shared material from JoeM, a major QAnon account.
Also that afternoon, a Facebook user called Lupe Fuentes posted almost identical language to @suemo54’s tweet in a meme, along with “BINGO!” The account had also previously posted QAnon material from JoeM. The meme was subsequently shared tens of thousands of times, and Fuentes bragged about the post’s virality.
Following these posts, other Twitter accounts began tweeting similar language, with some, according to the data analyst, getting “traction on their shooter/Beto tweet above and beyond what one might expect from their follower count.” Some of the accounts spreading the false claim that received thousands of retweets included @paphotog, an account that used to support QAnon; @nightingalern, a QAnon account that has the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all,” or “WWG1WGA” in its profile; and @bbusa617, which also supports QAnon.
Joel Fischer, an advisory council member for Turning Point USA, also tweeted the false claim by the evening, receiving thousands of retweets. Fischer has a history of pushing social media falsities, including those from the QAnon community.
Fischer’s tweet was spread by other right-wing figures and outlets, including the Telegram channel for the far-right group the Proud Boys, a Daily Wire writer whose tweet has since been deleted, and former White House official and current Sinclair contributor Sebastian Gorka, who has previously amplified false content spread by QAnon supporters.
Meanwhile, the false claim also continued to spread on Facebook, where some directly cited Fischer and Gorka and, as noted by The Associated Press, some “posted a picture of a white truck with a ‘Beto 2020’ sticker on the back window, saying it belonged to Ator”; on Twitter, including from Dustin Nemos, a co-author of a bestselling QAnon book who pushed @suemo54’s tweet; and on white nationalist hotspot 4chan, where a user shared Fuentes’ meme.
Tony Shaffer, a former intelligence officer and member of President Donald Trump’s 2020 advisory board, shared @suemo54’s tweet on the morning of September 2, adding that it showed the alleged shooter “was a @BetoORourke supporter.”
When The Washington Post told Shaffer in a brief interview that the claim in his tweet is false, Shaffer doubled down, saying, “That’s not what I’ve seen from people.”
The baseless claim tying the shooter to a Democratic presidential candidate -- and to the left more broadly -- appears to have jumped from social media to right-wing talk radio; on September 4, host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed the alleged shooter “was an out-of-control Democrat.”
A Facebook spokesperson, in response to criticism from O'Rourke's campaign about the falsity's spread on social media, told the Post that it was looking into whether “inauthentic behavior amplified content promoting the false story on its platform.” Neither Google nor Twitter responded to the paper's inquiries about the false claim.
Update (9/5/19): This piece has been updated with additional information.