PROVIDENCE, R.I. ( Associated Press) — By now it’s as predictable as prayer requests and thoughts: A mass shooting leaves many dead, and wild conspiracy theories and disinformation follow shortly after the carnage.
It happened after Sandy Hook, after Parkland, after the shooting at an Orlando nightclub and after this month’s attack on a supermarket in Buffalo. Within hours of Tuesday’s shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, another outbreak began with internet users sharing unsubstantiated claims about the man identified as the shooter and his possible motives.
Unsubstantiated claims that the shooter was an immigrant living in the United States illegally, or a transgender person, quickly surfaced on Twitter, Reddit and other social media platforms. They were accompanied by well-known conspiracy theories suggesting that the entire shooting had been staged in some way.
The claims reflect broader issues with racism or bigotry toward transgender people, and are an effort to attribute the shooting to minorities who already experience high rates of online harassment and hate crimes, according to disinformation expert Jaime Longoria.
“It’s a tactic that serves two purposes: It prevents real conversations about the problem (of gun violence) and it gives people who don’t want to face reality a scapegoat, it gives them someone to blame,” said Longoria, director research fellow at the Disinfo Defense League, a nonprofit group that works to combat racist disinformation.
Within hours of the crime, posts went viral falsely claiming the shooter was living in the country illegally. Some users added colorful details like he was “on the run from Border Patrol.”
“He was an illegal alien wanted for murder from El Salvador,” read a tweet with hundreds of retweets and likes. “This is blood on Biden’s hands and should never have happened.”
The man who authorities say fired the shots, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, is a US citizen, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Other social media users used images of innocent netizens to falsely identify them as the assailant and claim that he was transgender. On the 4Chan forum, users shared the photo and commented on a plan to describe the assailant as transgender, without any evidence for it.
A tweet that was later deleted showed a photo of a trans woman with a green bottle next to her mouth, who was looking at the camera and with headphones in one ear.
“BREAKING: THE IDENTITY OF THE SHOOTER HAS BEEN REVEALED,” said the user, who used a pejorative term to state that the assailant was a trans woman with a YouTube channel.
None of that was true. The image actually showed a 22-year-old trans woman named Sabrina, who lives in New York. Sabrina, who asked that her last name not be published for her privacy, confirmed to The Associated Press that the photo of her was hers and said it was not related to the alleged YouTube account.
Sabrina said she has received harassment on social media, especially messages accusing her of being the perpetrator of the shooting. She responded to several posts spreading the image asking for the posts to be deleted.
“This whole ordeal is just appalling,” Sabrina told the Associated Press.
Another widely circulated photo showed a trans woman in a Coca-Cola sweatshirt and black skirt. A second image showed the same woman in a black NASA T-shirt and red skirt. None of those images showed the shooter, but instead a Reddit user named Sam, who confirmed her identity to the Associated Press on Wednesday. Associated Press does not use Sam’s last name to protect her privacy.
“It’s not me, I don’t even live in Texas,” Sam wrote in a post on Reddit.
The authorities have not published any information about the sexuality or gender identity of the attacker.
Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar included the two baseless claims about Ramos in a single, now-deleted tweet that also misspelled his name. “He is a leftist transsexual illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos,” Gosar tweeted Tuesday night.
Gosar’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment.
In some cases, misinformation about mass shootings or other events is spread by well-intentioned users trying to help. In other cases, it may be the work of scammers trying to start fraudulent fundraisers or draw attention to their website or organization.
Then there are the trolls who seem to do it for fun.
Fringe communities like 4chan often seize on mass shootings and other tragedies as an opportunity to wreak havoc, mislead the public and promote harmful messages, according to Ben Decker, founder and CEO of digital research consultancy Memetica.
“It’s very intentional and deliberate for them to celebrate these incidents to influence what the main conversations are as well,” Decker said. “There is a nihilistic desire to prove oneself in this kind of community by successfully fooling the public. So if you can lead a campaign that leads to a result like this, you gain some credibility in the group.”
For the communities that bear the brunt of these vicious online attacks, however, false accusations bring fear of violence and further discrimination.
Something as seemingly innocuous as a transphobic comment on social media can trigger an act of violence against a trans person, explained Jaden Janak, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas and a professor at the Center for Applied Transgender Studies.
“These children and adults who were killed yesterday were just living their lives,” Janak said Wednesday. “They did not know that yesterday would be their last day. And similarly, as trans people, that’s a fear that we have all the time.”
Swenson reported from Seattle. Associated Press writers Angelo Fichera and Karena Phan contributed to this report.