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‘Horrifying’ conspiracy theories swirl around Texas shooting

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Crime scene tape surrounds Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing at least 19 fourth-graders and their two teachers. (AP Photo/Jae C.
Crime scene tape surrounds Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing at least 19 fourth-graders and their two teachers. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Photo Gallery

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — By now it’s as predictable as the calls for thoughts and prayers: A mass shooting leaves many dead, and wild conspiracy theories and misinformation about the carnage soon follow.

It happened after Sandy Hook, after Parkland, after the Orlando nightclub shooting and after the deadly rampage earlier this month at a Buffalo grocery store. Within hours of Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, another rash began as internet users spread baseless claims about the man named as the gunman and his possible motives.

Unfounded claims that the gunman was an immigrant living in the U.S. illegally, or transgender, quickly emerged on Twitter, Reddit and other social media platforms. They were accompanied by familiar conspiracy theories suggesting the entire shooting was somehow staged.

The claims reflect broader problems with racism and intolerance toward transgender people, and are an effort to blame the shooting on minority groups who already endure higher rates of online harassment and hate crimes, according to disinformation expert Jaime Longoria.

“It’s a tactic that serves two purposes: It avoids real conversations about the issue (of gun violence), and it gives people who don’t want to face reality a patsy, it gives them someone to blame,” said Longoria, director of research at the Disinfo Defense League, a non-profit that works to fight racist misinformation.

Texas shooting

Two Texas Troopers light a candle at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers. (AP Photo/Jae C. Texas elementary school shooting: What do we know so far?
A gunman stormed into an elementary school Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two teachers in the United States'…
A family pays their respects next to crosses bearing the names of Tuesday's shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Police: Texas gunman was inside the school for over an hour
The gunman who massacred 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school was inside for more than an hour…
Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco, left, is comforted by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during a vigil held in honor of the lives lost at Robb Elementary school at the Uvalde County Fairplex Arena in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Police face questions over delays in storming Texas school
Law enforcement authorities faced mounting questions and criticism Thursday over how much time elapsed before they stormed a Texas elementary school classroom…

In the hours after the shooting, posts falsely claiming the gunman was living in the country illegally went viral, with some users adding embellishments, including that he was “on the run from Border Patrol.”

“He was an illegal alien wanted for murder from El Salvador,” read one tweet liked and retweeted hundreds of times. “This is blood on Biden’s hands and should have never happened.”

The man who authorities say carried out the shooting, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, is a U.S. citizen, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference on Tuesday.

Other social media users seized on images of innocent internet users to falsely identify them as the gunman and claim he was transgender. On the online message board 4Chan, users liberally shared the photos and discussed a plan to label the gunman as transgender, without any evidence to back it up.

One post on Twitter, which has since been deleted, featured a photo of a trans woman holding a green bottle to her mouth, looking into the camera, headphones hanging from one ear.

“BREAKING NEWS: THE IDENTITY OF THE SHOOTER HAS BEEN REVEALED,” claimed the user, saying the shooter was a “FEMBOY” with a channel on YouTube.

None of that was true. The photo actually depicted a 22-year-old trans woman named Sabrina who lives in New York City. Sabrina, who requested her last name not be published due to privacy concerns, confirmed to The Associated Press that the photo was hers and also said she was not affiliated with the purported YouTube account.

Sabrina said she received harassing responses on social media, particularly messages claiming that she was the shooter. She responded to a number of posts spreading the image with the misidentification, asking for the posts to be deleted.

“This whole ordeal is just horrifying,” Sabrina told the AP.

Another photo that circulated widely showed a transgender woman with a Coca-Cola sweatshirt and a black skirt. A second photo showed the same woman wearing a black NASA shirt with a red skirt. These photos didn’t show the gunman either — they were of a Reddit user named Sam, who confirmed her identity to the AP on Wednesday. The AP is not using Sam’s last name to protect her privacy.

“It’s not me, I don’t even live in Texas,” Sam wrote in a Reddit post.

From Columbine to Robb, 169 dead in U.S. mass school shootings

Mass shooters have killed hundreds of people throughout U.S. history in realms like stores, theaters and workplaces, but it is in schools and colleges where the carnage reverberates perhaps most keenly — places filled with children of tender ages, older students aspiring to new heights and the teachers planting the seeds of knowledge, their journeys all cut short.

If a mass shooting is defined as resulting in the death of four or more people, not including the perpetrator, 169 people have died in 14 such events connected to U.S. schools and colleges — from 1999's Columbine High School massacre to Tuesday's shooting in Texas. That's according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University, and to other AP reporting:

ROBB ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, May 2022, 21 dead

An 18-year-old gunman opened fire Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two adults, officials said. Law enforcement killed the attacker.

OXFORD HIGH SCHOOL, November 2021, 4 dead

A sophomore student is accused of killing four people and wounding others at his school in Oxford, Michigan, near Detroit. His trial is set for September. His parents are charged with involuntary manslaughter; authorities say they ignored warning signs.

SANTA FE HIGH SCHOOL, May 2018, 10 dead

A shooter opened fire at a Houston-area high school, killing 10 people, most of them students, authorities said. The 17-year-old suspect has been charged with murder.

MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL, February 2018, 17 dead

An attack left 14 students and three staff members dead at the school in Parkland, Florida, and injured many others. The 20-year-old suspect was charged with murder.

UMPQUA COMMUNITY COLLEGE, October 2015, 9 dead

A man killed nine people at the school in Roseburg, Oregon, and wounded nine others, then killed himself.

MARYSVILLE-PILCHUCK HIGH SCHOOL, October 2014, 4 dead

A 15-year-old used text messages to draw several cousins and friends to his cafeteria table at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington. He fatally shot four of them before killing himself.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA BARBARA, May 2014, 6 dead

A 22-year-old college student frustrated over sexual rejections fatally stabbed or shot six students near the school in Isla Vista, California, and injured several others before he killed himself.

SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, December 2012, 27 dead

A 19-year-old man killed his mother at their home in Newtown, Connecticut, then went to the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first graders and six educators. He took his own life.

OIKOS UNIVERSITY, April 2012, 7 dead

A former nursing student fatally shot seven people at the small private college in East Oakland, California. He died in prison in 2019.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, February 2008, 5 dead

A 27-year-old former student shot and killed five people and wounded more than 20 others at the school in DeKalb, Illinois, before killing himself.

VIRGINIA TECH, April 2007, 32 dead

A 23-year-old student killed 32 people on the campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, in April 2007; more than two dozen others were wounded. The gunman then killed himself.

WEST NICKEL MINES AMISH SCHOOL, October 2006, 5 dead

A 32-year-old man entered an Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, dismissed the boys, bound the girls, and fatally shot five of them before killing himself. Five others were wounded.

RED LAKE HIGH SCHOOL, March 2005, 9 dead

A 16-year-old student killed his grandfather and the man's companion at their Minnesota home, then went to nearby Red Lake High School, where he killed five students, a teacher and a security guard before shooting himself.

COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL, April 1999, 13 dead

Two students killed 12 of their peers and one teacher at the school in Littleton, Colorado, and injured many others before killing themselves.

Authorities have released no information on the gunman’s sexuality or gender identification.

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar fit both unfounded claims about Ramos in a single now-deleted tweet that also misspelled his name. “It’s a transsexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos,” Gosar tweeted Tuesday night.

Gosar’s office did not return a message seeking comment.

In some cases, misinformation about mass shootings or other events are spread by well-intentioned social media users trying to be helpful. In other cases, it can be the work of grifters looking to start fake fundraisers or draw attention to their website or organization.

Then there are the trolls who seemingly do it for fun.

Fringe online communities, including on 4chan, often use mass shootings and other tragedies as opportunities to sow chaos, troll the public and push harmful narratives, according to Ben Decker, founder and CEO of the digital investigations consultancy Memetica.

“It is very intentional and deliberate for them in celebrating these types of incidents to also influence what the mainstream conversations actually are,” Decker said. “There’s a nihilistic desire to prove oneself in these types of communities by successfully trolling the public. So if you are able to spearhead a campaign that leads to an outcome like this, you’re gaining increased sort of in-group credibility.”

For the communities bearing the brunt of such vicious online attacks, though, the false blame stirs fears of further discrimination and violence.

Something as seemingly innocuous as a transphobic comment on social media can spark an act of violence against a transgender person, said Jaden Janak, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas and a junior fellow at the Center for Applied Transgender Studies.

“These children and adults who were murdered yesterday were just living their lives,” Janak said Wednesday. “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.”

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