Washington Post, 27 February: David Hogg, 17, went from Florida high school student to mass shooting survivor to telegenic advocate for gun-control laws in a few days. And just as quickly, online conspiracy theorists began spinning viral lies attacking the teenager’s credibility.
By Wednesday — a week after a gunman wielding a semiautomatic rifle killed 17 people at Hogg’s Parkland, Fla., school — online media sites including YouTube swelled with false allegations that Hogg was secretly a “crisis actor” playing the part of a grieving student in local and national television news reports.
Hogg was not the only one targeted by an online campaign that flared up on anonymous forums such as 4chan and Reddit before it reached conservative websites, Twitter, Facebook and Google’s video platform. Collectively the posts questioned the honesty and credibility of the grieving students as they spoke out against gun violence and in some cases publicly challenged President Trump, the National Rifle Association and lawmakers opposed to gun control.
“It’s annoying. I hate it. But it’s part of American democracy,” Hogg said in a phone interview. “Am I an actor? No. Am I a witness? Yes.”
The incident has also highlighted how nobody — even a group of teens just days removed from seeing their fellow students gunned down — is off limits in the no-holds-barred world of online commentary, with its often-toxic mix of rumor, innuendo and unrefuted accusation.
The conspiracy theories about Hogg grew from a combination of facts and falsehoods, mixed together with authentic photos and videos collected online, making it more difficult for the algorithms on social media platforms to detect false information.
Mike Cernovich, a far-right social media commentator who sometimes appears on the Infowars conspiracy site, said it’s possible to concoct a video in as little as 20 minutes that splices together images and text to create an alternative narrative capable of spreading rapidly on social media.
Online talk of a “false flag” attack — essentially a fake in which the real culprit is trying to frame somebody else — started soon after the Parkland survivors started speaking on television and social media about the horror of the shooting and demanding government action to prevent yet another one.
Hogg became the target of some of the conspiracy stories after he mentioned in one interview that his father was a retired FBI agent, allowing the online narrative to merge with ongoing attacks against the bureau. The FBI has been under fire from conservatives over its investigation into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, and President Trump has blamed the Parkland shooting on the FBI’s failure to follow up on a tip about the suspect.
The conservative website Gateway Pundit on Monday posted a picture of Hogg under the headline: “EXPOSED: School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist David Hogg’s Father in FBI, Appears To Have Been Coached On Anti-Trump Lines.”
Posts alleging that the Parkland students were “crisis actors” began at about the same time.
Such allegations are a mainstay of conspiracy reports about mass shootings, with some gun rights activists claiming that those favoring stricter gun laws hire actors to pretend to be victims of phony attacks.
“You have the same three or four tropes that get floated again and again,” said Whitney Phillips, a Mercer University professor who studies the relationship between online trolling and mainstream culture. “Its hard to know what is causing it. But as a person who has been studying this a lot, I brace myself for the narrative that I know is about to unfold” each time a shooting occurs. In October, YouTube said it would change its algorithm to elevate authoritative news sources after hoaxes quickly dominated the site after the Las Vegas shooting.
Buzzfeed: A conspiracy that was started by right-wing sites and amplified by online trolls suggests that the Florida student activists demanding gun restrictions are actually actors pushing a liberal agenda.
The well ORGANIZED effort by Florida school students demanding gun control has GEORGE SOROS’ FINGERPRINTS all over it. It is similar to how he hijacked and exploited black people’s emotion regarding police use of force incidents into the COP HATING Black Lives Matter movement. pic.twitter.com/XDZ3bcwF6F
— David A. Clarke, Jr. (@SheriffClarke) February 20, 2018
In fact, on Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. liked two tweets that pushed the theory that one of the Parkland, Florida, shooting survivors, 17-year-old David Hogg, was “coached” in his efforts to advocate for gun control legislation.
The students are now responding in a way that teens fluent in social media could probably be expected to: They’re trolling back. Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old survivor and organizer who came up with the name of their movement, “Never Again,” poked fun at the fake claims against Hogg in a tweet.
Okay, you caught me. I’m a Crisis Actor brainwashed by the left. They chose me because I played Iago, Mr. Potato Head, and King Triton in camp musicals as a kid.
— Adam Alhanti (@AAlhanti) February 21, 2018
Despite the trolling back, in a statement to BuzzFeed News, Hogg called the conspiracies and smear campaigns waged against him and his colleagues “immature, rude, and inhumane.”
I asked @davidhogg111 about Donald Trump Jr. pushing false conspiracy theories about him — this morning, Trump Jr. "liked" two tweets peddling fake news — here's David's response: pic.twitter.com/vGgZ8ZRZw6
— Remy Smidt (@remysmidt) February 20, 2018