After every mass shooting, a grim online pattern follows. Politicians tweet out their thoughts and prayers, and explain that now is not the time to discuss gun control. Meanwhile, law enforcement slowly updates the media as they painstakingly piece together the timeline for the latest massacre. Meanwhile, online, a flurry of misinformation spreads.
Some of this misinformation and fake news is crude, cruel trolling. But there is also a significant subsection that spreads rumors tailor-made to drum up right-wing fears, be it that the shooter was connected to Antifa or Pro-Bernie Sanders groups, or that the victims were part of a CIA “Deep State” operation. These conspiracies cloud the airwaves, making even basic agreement about what happened more difficult. Worse, the fringe communities where these ideas are incubated have an extremely high, and often misunderstood, level of influence on mainstream social media sites like Twitter.
After the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left at least 26 dead, patterns of misinformation yet again flourished. As news of the attack was still developing, Texas Representative Vicente González mistakenly named the shooter as Sam Hyde. Every time there is a mass shooting, Sam Hyde’s name is circulated in a barrage of social media posts. Another post claimed that the teenage YouTuber “Reviewbrah” was missing in Sutherland Springs. He was also allegedly missing after the Las Vegas shooting, and after the Manchester bombing in May – after which he posted a video saying that he was in fact “alive”.
These hoaxes have for years thrived on the messaging board 4chan, which was also where counter-narratives began to grow about the Sutherland Springs shooting, just like they did after the Las Vegas shooting. As Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick noted, one popular thread that was posted after the Las Vegas attack was called “CONTROL THE NARRATIVE. DON’T LET FAKE NEWS TAKE CONTROL” and added that it was important to make sure that everyone knew Steve Paddock was a “Commie”.
The same attempts to control the narrative were visible after the Sutherland Springs shooting. Some 4chan users speculated that the shooting was an ISIS or Antifa attack, others that it was a false flag operation. Soon claims that Devin Patrick Kelley was a “Radical Alt-Left Antifa member” quickly found their way to Twitter, and to the top of Google’s search results. These rumors even translated over to the real world. On Sunday, a Washington Post reporter heard women outside University Hospital in San Antonio talking about how the shooting might have been a “false flag” — who then proceeded to shove the reporter away when she inquired further.
The popularization of these conspiracy theories is helped along by far-right media stars like Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec and Alex Jones. These men have an established Twitter following, but are also well-received among online far-right communities, making them perfect stepping-stones through which the conspiracies can flow. Before anyone knew Kelley’s identity for instance, Mike Cernovich tweeted asking whether the shooting was an “Antifa terrorist attack”. This idea was then picked up by Alex Jones, and Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson joined in. Google’s search engine algorithm surfaced the conspiracy that Kelley was a member of Antifa to linger near the top of its search results well after it had been established that he wasn’t. As the Daily Beast reported, nearly 24 hours after the Sutherland Springs shooting google was still autocompleting David Kelley to “David Kelley Antifa”.
The scope of this problem is examined in a study by researchers at the University of Alabama, Cyprus University of Technology, University College London and Telefonica Research. In analyzing millions of posts shared on Twitter, Reddit and 4chan, researchers found that far-right communities on 4chan and Reddit “can have a surprising level of influence on Twitter, providing evidence that ‘fringe’ communities often succeed in spreading alternative news to mainstream social networks and the greater Web.”
The researchers found that there was a direct migratory path from unfounded rumors originating on 4chan and the right-wing subreddits to Twitter and, then, more mainstream news and social media sites. The study focuses particularly The_Donald subreddit and 4chan’s politics board, finding that they are responsible for “around 6 per cent of mainstream news URLs and over 4.5 percent of alternative news URLs posted to Twitter.” The report adds that “considering Twitter’s relative size [in comparison to /pol/ and The_Donald], the impact of these fringe communities cannot be overstated.”
On a personal level, this type of cruel, memeticized trolling intrudes upon the grief of shooting victims in the mere hours after the event takes place. But this far-right narrative also has a crucial role in diverting away some of the key facts around the case, namely that Kelley was a domestic abuser who was somehow still able to buy a gun despite his violent history. Focusing on the link between toxic masculinity and mass shootings, or the near-absence of U.S. gun control, is difficult for the online far-right, a group which is overwhelmingly male, white, and wants access to high-powered weaponry. So instead of acknowledging the problem, they have instead become adept at pushing a fake counter-narrative onto the unsuspecting, grieving populace.