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In the fever swamps and extremist fringes of the internet, the outspoken student survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are depicted as mouthpieces of the FBI, pawns of left-wing activist billionaire George Soros, stooges of the Democratic Party — or all of the above.
The students, who have called for stronger gun control measures, are now the subject of conspiracy theories that have spread far and wide, even reaching cable news and spurring the firing of a Florida lawmaker’s aide.
The speed with which these groundless claims spread points to a troubling digital ecosystem in the era of fake news. In this shadow media network, unfounded information shows up on dubious sites, churns through the news aggregation site Reddit, and works its way into Facebook feeds — and to the mainstream media.
The accusation that the students are paid "crisis actors" has gained the most velocity online, trending on YouTube at one point and racking up tens of thousands of shares on Facebook. The spread of disinformation comes as Silicon Valley faces increasing pressure to crack down on propaganda and fake news.
"In the conspiracist mindset, everything is potentially a deception," David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at The New School, said in an email. "And a supposed secret cabal that orchestrates the liberal conspiracy against the American right-wing would have to involve paid actors, who allegedly appear at staged school massacres, as an elaborate hoax performance to justify gun confiscation."
As of 6 p.m. ET Tuesday, more than 111,000 Facebook users had shared a since-deleted post claiming the Parkland students were performers who exploit tragedies. The post, along with others that had tens of thousands of shares, was later taken down.
In the post, the Facebook user included a screenshot of David Hogg, a 17-year-old Parkland survivor, from an August 2017 television news report that aired on CBS Los Angeles. He had been interviewed by a news crew about a confrontation between a lifeguard and a surfer in Redondo Beach, California. The Facebook user wrote that Hogg, who has said he was visiting Los Angeles at the time of the report, was "pretending."
YouTube also served as a platform for attacks on students, particularly Hogg. As of Wednesday morning, videos alleging he was a crisis actor dominated the YouTube search results for his name. One such video was the top trending clip on the platform early Wednesday morning.
A YouTube spokesperson confirmed the situation and acknowledged that the video had been erroneously added to its Trending section.
"This video should never have appeared in Trending," a YouTube spokesperson wrote in an email. "Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it. As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward."
Facebook also took action to remove the posts.
“Images that attack the victims of last week's tragedy in Florida are abhorrent," Mary deBree, head of content policy at Facebook, said in an email. "We are removing this content from Facebook."
A national issue
Inflammatory claims like these now accompany just about every major American tragedy. Alex Jones, the controversial conspiracy theorist and Infowars host, suggested on his radio show that the Parkland shooting was a “false flag,” or staged, operation. Jones has pushed similar views about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, including the idea that the people shown in news reports from the scene were actors.
Once fodder for the darker corners of the internet, absurd claims and wild rumors have been making their way into the mainstream media and the social media accounts of prominent individuals in politics, which lend the theories the appearance of credibility.
Donald Trump Jr., for instance, liked two tweets that suggested Hogg, who has emerged as one of the most vocal survivors, was railing against the Trump administration to cover for his father. Hogg has said his father is a retired FBI agent.
And in an appearance on CNN, former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston asked, “Do we really think — and I say this sincerely — do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?”
“I would say to you very plainly that organized groups that are out there, like George Soros, are always ready to the charge, and it’s kind of like instantly rally, instant protest,” Kingston added, before he was challenged by anchor Alisyn Camerota.
A representative for Kingston did not respond to a request for comment, citing Kingston’s role as a contributor to CNN. CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the news value of airing Kingston’s views.
The evolution of a conspiracy theory
By early Monday, far-right websites began to run with the crisis actor theory.
Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog that has been criticized for publishing false reports, uploaded a YouTube video Monday morning titled “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines When Interviewed for Florida school shooting.”
In the video, Hogg appears to stumble over his words during an exchange with a reporter. It was not clear if the footage had been edited or altered, and it lacked basic context. YouTube has since removed the video for violating its policy on harassment and bullying.
Gateway Pundit and other sites that appear to traffic in conspiracy theories — True Pundit, NorthCrane.com, Infowars.com — followed up that video with articles that cast aspersions on Hogg and his purported connection to the FBI. Donald Trump Jr. liked tweets that linked to two of those articles.
Meanwhile, on the Reddit channel for ardent supporters of President Trump, users circulated unsubstantiated information, dark jokes, and memes about Hogg and his classmates.
In an appearance on CNN on Tuesday morning, a Parkland survivor sharply criticized Kingston for suggesting he and his fellow classmates were coached by left-wing financial backers or handlers.
“I think it’s very despicable that he would even have the audacity to say that,” said Brandon Abzug, the student. “Young people all across this country and over the world should feel that they have the power to make things right.”
Another student, Kali Clougherty, blasted the conspiracy theorists:
And in Florida, the speedy resolution of a small-scale political scandal suggested there are penalties for spreading baseless information.
Benjamin Kelly, a Florida legislator’s aide, was fired on Tuesday after reportedly sending an email to a Tampa Bay Times reporter in which he claimed Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, another Parkland survivor, were “actors that travel to various crisis [sic] when they happen.”
A few hours later, state Rep. Shawn Harrison tweeted that Kelly had been “terminated” from his post. “I am appalled at and strongly denounce his comments about the Parkland students,” Harrison tweeted.
During an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday afternoon, Hogg appeared to dismiss the trolls who have targeted him and his classmates.
"The only time you're ever doing anything that actually matters is when people try stopping you," he said.