By now it’s as predictable as the calls for thoughts and prayers: as America reels from another mass shooting, wild conspiracy theories and misinformation about the carnage swirl online.
It happened after the 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook, il 2018 shooting in Parkland, the violence at an Orlando nightclub and after the deadly rampage at a Buffalo grocery store this month.
Within hours of Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, another rash began as internet users spread baseless claims about the man named as the gunman and his possible motives on Twitter, Reddit and other social media platforms. The false claims were accompanied by familiar conspiracy theories suggesting the entire shooting was somehow staged.
The claims reflect broader problems with racism and intolerance toward transgender people, and are an effort to blame the shooting on minority groups who already endure higher rates of online harassment and hate crimes, according to the disinformation expert Jaime Longoria.
“It’s a tactic that serves two purposes: it avoids real conversations about the issue [of gun violence], and it gives people who don’t want to face reality a patsy, it gives them someone to blame,” said Longoria, director of research at the Disinfo Defense League, a non-profit that works to fight racist misinformation.
In the hours after the shooting, posts falsely claiming the gunman was living in the US illegally went viral, with some users adding embellishments, including that he was “on the run from Border Patrol”.
“He was an illegal alien wanted for murder from El Salvador,” read one tweet that was liked and retweeted hundreds of times. “This is blood on Biden’s hands and should have never happened.”
The man who authorities say carried out the shooting, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, is a US citizen, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, said in a news conference.
Other social media users seized on images of innocent internet users to falsely identify them as the gunman and claim he was trans. On the online message board 4Chan, users liberally shared the photos and discussed a plan to label the gunman as trans, without any evidence to back it up.
One post on Twitter, which has since been deleted, featured a photo of a trans woman holding a green bottle to her mouth, looking into the camera, headphones hanging from one ear. “Breaking news: The identity of the shooter has been revealed,” claimed the user, adding the shooter was a “femboy” with a channel on YouTube.
None of that was true. The photo actually depicted a 22-year-old named Sabrina who lives in New York City. Sabrina, who requested her last name not be published due to privacy concerns, confirmed to the Associated Press that the photo was hers and also said she was not affiliated with the purported YouTube account.
Sabrina said she received harassing responses on social media, particularly messages claiming that she was the shooter. She responded to a number of posts spreading the image with the misidentification, asking for the posts to be deleted.
“This whole ordeal is just horrifying,” Sabrina told the AP.
Another photo that circulated widely showed a trans woman with a Coca-Cola sweatshirt and a black skirt. A second photo showed the same woman wearing a black Nasa shirt with a red skirt. These photos didn’t show the gunman either – they were of a Reddit user named Sam, who confirmed her identity to the AP on Wednesday. The AP is not using 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 released no information on the gunman’s sexuality or gender identity.
The Arizona congressman Paul Gosar fit both unfounded claims about Ramos in a single now-deleted tweet that also misspelled the shooter’s name. “It’s a transsexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos,” Gosar tweeted Tuesday night.
Gosar’s office did not return a message seeking comment.
In some cases, misinformation about mass shootings or other events are spread by well-intentioned social media users trying to be helpful. In other cases, it can be the work of grifters looking to start fake fundraisers or draw attention to their websites or organizations.
Then there are the trolls. Fringe online communities, including on 4chan, often use mass shootings and other tragedies as opportunities to sow chaos, troll the public and push harmful narratives, according to Ben Decker, founder and CEO of the digital investigations consultancy Memetica.
“It is very intentional and deliberate for them in celebrating these types of incidents to also influence what the mainstream conversations actually are,” Decker said. “There’s a nihilistic desire to prove oneself in these types of communities by successfully trolling the public. So if you are able to spearhead a campaign that leads to an outcome like this, you’re gaining increased sort of in-group credibility.”
For the communities bearing the brunt of such vicious online attacks, anche se, the false blame stirs fears of further discrimination and violence.
Something as seemingly innocuous as a transphobic comment on social media can spark an act of violence against a transgender person, said Jaden Janak, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas and a junior fellow at the Center for Applied Transgender Studies.
“These children and adults who were murdered yesterday were just living their lives,“ Janak said on Wednesday. “They didn’t know that yesterday was going to be their last day. And similarly, as trans people, that’s a fear that we have all the time.”