Social Media Spreads Harmful Untruths About Texas Shooting

    26 May 2022

    Experts are warning of conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media after the recent deadly shootings in the American state of Texas.

    On Tuesday, an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in the town of Uvalde.

    Within hours of Tuesday's school shootings, internet users spread false claims. The claims were about the teenager named as the gunman and his possible reasons for carrying out the attack.

    A family pays their respects next to crosses bearing the names of Tuesday's shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
    A family pays their respects next to crosses bearing the names of Tuesday's shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

    The Associated Press noted that misinformation also appeared on social media after the shootings at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Parkland, Florida and after the Orlando, Florida nightclub shooting. It also happened after the mass shooting earlier this month at a Buffalo grocery store.

    One of the untrue claims about the gunman was that he was an immigrant living in the U.S. illegally, Another was that he was transgender, the AP reported. These quickly appeared on social media services Twitter, Reddit and others. Another claim was that the shooting was somehow false or carried out to gain public attention.

    The claims show the problems of racism and intolerance toward transgender people.

    Jaime Longoria is a disinformation expert and leads research at the Disinfo Defense League. He said the conspiracy theories represent an effort to blame the shooting on minority groups. He said these groups already experience higher rates of online mistreatment and hate crimes.

    "It's a tactic that serves two purposes: It avoids real conversations about the issue (of gun violence), and it gives people...someone to blame," said Longoria.

    One popular conspiracy theory was that the gunman was not in the country legally. The man who officials said carried out the shooting, Salvador Ramos, was a U.S. citizen, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a news conference on Tuesday.

    Other social media users used photos of innocent internet users to falsely identify them as the gunman and claim he was transgender. On the online message service 4Chan, users shared the photos and talked about a plan to say the gunman was transgender, without any evidence to prove it.

    Horrifying experience

    One message on Twitter showed an image of a transgender person, saying the shooter had a channel on YouTube. The message has been removed since then.

    The photo actually showed a 22-year-old transgender person named Sabrina who lives in New York City. Sabrina told the AP that the photo was hers and said she had no links with the YouTube channel.

    Sabrina said she had gotten unkind messages on social media claiming that she was the shooter. She answered some of the messages, asking that they be removed.

    Sabrina told the AP the experience was "just horrifying."

    Officials have released no information on the gunman's sexuality or gender identification.

    In some cases, social media users spread misinformation about mass shootings without fully understanding the facts. In other cases, it can be the work of criminals looking to raise money for their own use or bring attention to their website or organization.

    Then there are the trolls - people who send offensive messages for fun.

    Ben Decker is founder and chief of the investigation company Memetica. He said that extreme online communities often use mass shootings and other tragedies to create disorder and misunderstanding. They want to upset the public and push harmful untruths.

    Decker said people in such communities want to show how powerful they can be by "successfully trolling the public." By pushing their story on the general public, they raise their own position in their online community, he said.

    Fear of more violence

    For the communities harmed by online attacks, the false blame creates fear of discrimination and violence.

    Jaden Janak is a graduate student at the University of Texas and also with the Center for Applied Transgender Studies. Janak said that a transphobic comment on social media can bring about an act of violence against a transgender person.

    "These children and adults who were murdered yesterday were just living their lives," Janak said. "They didn't know that yesterday was going to be their last day. And similarly, as trans people, that's a fear that we have all the time," Janak added.

    I'm Jill Robbins.

    Rodrigo Gutierrez reported on this story for Reuters. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    conspiracy – n. secret planning by a group of people to do something illegal

    transgenderadj. a person who has a gender identity which is different from the sex assigned to them at birth

    intolerance –n. being not willing to accept or permit something

    tacticn. a method that you choose to use in order to achieve what you want in a particular situation

    citizen –n. a person who legally belongs to a country and bears the rights, protections and responsibilities of that country

    gender –n. the state of being male or female

    transphobicadj. showing a fear or hatred of transgender people

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