On the morning after the deadliest shooting in modern American history, there was a certain predictability in the response to a tragedy that left at least 59 dead and another 527 wounded on the Las Vegas strip. Many on the left went straight to the gun control debate: Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy suggested, “It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something,” and Hillary Clinton tweeted “Our grief isn’t enough.” On the right, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee implored the media not to politicize the victims’ deaths, while Breitbart spent the morning retweeting liberal celebrities who called for new gun laws.
But amidst this well-worn dance of Democrats versus Republicans, there came another response to Steven Paddock’s massacre: a spate of false flag proclamations and conspiracy theories, emanating from the darkest corners of the Internet and the likes of Alex Jones, 4Chan and Reddit.
We dived into the rabbit holes of right-wing and fringe media sites Monday and here is what we found. The morning began with Gateway Pundit, an outlet that managed to procure a White House press credential, publishing a story that fingered the wrong suspect in the shooting, which it then retracted. From the depths of 4Chan there were posts that tied Paddock to the anti-Trump Antifa (short for antifascist) movement and a fake Antifa Twitter account that praised the shooting. There were 4chan commenters claiming the number of victims was fabricated—as well as the number of shooters.
Unsurprisingly, nothing was as egregious as Jones, the conspiracy monger who has asserted the Newtown school massacre was staged. Jones tied Paddock, the 64-year-old retiree to ISIS—seizing on an unconfirmed report from the terrorist group—and, remarkably, to a Communist takeover of the country. “It’s the October Revolution, that stretched into November and December,” he declared “It’s the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. We’re here. It’s happening now. This is real.”
And so as details trickled out about Paddock’s past (gambling habits, grumpy encounters with neighbors, his father’s bank robbery spree) and the details of his heart-breaking rampage, journalists embarked on what has become a familiar mission in the wake of national breaking events: Debunking the rumors and deliberate falsehoods that were already reaching viral strength before many people on the east coast had even heard there was a shooting. Compounding the problem, as the media attempted to bat down the misinformation, platforms like Facebook and Google were spreading even further, promoting “trending” news stories from Russian propaganda outlets like Sputnik and returning search results for the very story that Gateway Pundit retracted.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see anything different with the Vegas shooting versus what we saw after Nice or Paris,” said Alexios Mantzarlis, the director of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. “All of these shootings seem to me to generate the same amount of fake crap.”
Real Fake News
The far-right blog Gateway Pundit–which was controversially bestowed with press credentials by the White House in February–published a story in the early hours of Monday morning misidentifying the shooter as Geary Danley, an apparent Democrat who “liked” various liberal Facebook pages. The report drew from a 4chan thread where users connected his archived Facebook profile to Marilou Danley, a person of interest in the shooting. The Gateway Pundit report by Joe Hoft, brother of the blog’s founder Jim Hoft, was deleted before 9 a.m., but the headline is still listed as a Google search result.
Google and Facebook came under fire for their news aggregation over the course of the day, as well, as the 4chan thread about Geary Danley appeared near the top of the former’s search results for the shooting. New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose noted that two of Facebook’s top trending stories were from Sputnik, a Russian state news outlet, although they were later removed with an apology from a company spokesperson. The Trump loyalist subreddit r/TheDonald criticized the disappearance of the Danley story down the internet’s memory hole, with one commenter claiming “[The media] always censor, they did the same during the Orlando shooting too.”
Another added: “They wanna censor cuz it doesn’t fit their narrative, especially since this guy is rumored to be a crazy, left-wing, trump-hating fool, according to what people say about his FB that ehy found before it was taken down.”
Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator for the Nieman Foundation of Journalism at Harvard, said that moments like Sunday’s shooting illustrate the vast difference between social networks and news organizations. “If you listen to Facebook, this is both a moment where you blame it on the algorithm and then say the algorithm is going to fix it,” she said. “That’s so antithetical to what journalism does, which requires human vetting—parsing fact from fiction is at the core of the enterprise.”
Wrong With a Twist
InfoWars figurehead Alex Jones, who hosted President Trump on his program in December of 2015, took a victory lap today over his recent prediction that “a new Charlottesville” would kick off a long-brewing civil war between the left and right. Jones hosted the right-wing author Matthew Bracken on his show Monday afternoon to discuss how Paddock was supposedly attempting to incite the partisan violence. Jones repeatedly cited unsubstantiated claims that the shooter was an avowed leftist and that he was connected to ISIS. Jones, who has questioned whether the Sandy Hook shooting was a government-sponsored hoax, has claimed repeatedly that a violent event like Sunday’s shooting will serve as “the cover for the detonation” for the conflict for which he and his listeners have been preparing.
Even as the media interviewed Paddock’s brother on national TV, James Allsup, who was involved with a college students for Trump group, tweeted that Paddock could be family-less and friend-less, comparing him to Adam Lanza, the shooter at Newtown. Allsup, too, hinted a hoax: “Also recall how Adam Lanza’s home was bulldozed and his possessions destroyed. That’s odd—why was that done?”
Even after the discrediting of the Geary Danley story early in the day, the amateur sleuths of 4chan continued to seize on pieces of internet ephemera that appeared to tie Paddock to left-wing causes–after discovering a 1993 NASA document listing a “Steve Paddock” as an employee, commenters linked it to a photo of a man resembling Paddock wearing a pink “pussy-hat” and NASA t-shirt. Self-appointed Trump explainer, right-wing ally, and Dilbert creator Scott Adams addressed the claims in a Periscope video, speculating that the shooter was unlikely to be a Republican and therefore was “probably more associated with the left, that would give you, maybe it’s antifa, maybe it’s ISIS, maybe… just anti-Trump.” A favorite tactic of the alt-right, the dummy Twitter account, was used to tie Paddock to the left by a group supposedly representing “Cambridge Antifa”, as well, celebrating the shooting as “the opportunity of a lifetime” with the hashtag #Kamala2020.
One of the more bizarre phenomena of the fake news cycle Monday was the number of social media users interjecting themselves, but without a clear partisan agenda. For example, a photo of Eden Hazard, an international soccer star who plays for Chelsea, was shared on Twitter with a plea to find the missing victim. Why this has become a popular tactic—a similar ruse was used after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando—remains murkier than the more obvious partisan agendas. But Poynter’s Mantzarlis said that there were likely two reasons: The first was a financial motive to add followers and site traffic; the second was people retweeting the messages in an honest, albeit misguided attempt to be part of the larger conversation.
As for how the media responded to the flood of false stories, Susan McGregor, the assistant director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said that reporters have caught up to how and where false rumors are started. Several years ago, in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, an incorrect suspect’s name first surfaced on Reddit, and made its way into the mainstream press. Now, McGregor said, one of the first jobs of the press isn’t just to report on new developments. “They jump straight to debunking now, which is almost just as important,” she said.
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