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Trolls and Bots Moved Fast to Politicize Texas School Shooting on Social Media

May 19, 2018, 8:39 PM UTC
Deadly Shooting At Santa Fe High School In Texas Leaves 10 Dead
SANTA FE, TX - MAY 19: Crime scene tape is stretched across the front of Santa Fe High School on May 19, 2018 in Santa Fe, Texas. Yesterday morning, 17-year-old student Dimitrios Pagourtzis entered the school with a shotgun and a pistol and opened fire, killing at least 10 people. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scott Olson—Getty Images

Within just hours of the school shooting that left 10 dead in Santa Fe, Texas, Friday, efforts were afoot to use social media to spread disinformation about the shooter and his actions. Many of those disinformation campaigns seemed focused primarily on politicizing the event, though what little is reliably known of the shooter presents an unclear picture of his political sentiments.

Within an hour of the shooting, according to the Washington Post, fake Facebook profiles had been created of the shooter which depicted him as a Hillary Clinton supporter, and part of the loose anti-fascist activist coalition known as ‘Antifa.’

Conspiracy theories and hoaxes about the events in Santa Fe also started circulating almost immediately. The fact-checking site Snopes has identified spreading claims that the shooting was a “false flag,” or an event engineered by powerful, shadowy figures toward political ends. Those ideas have become increasingly mainstream thanks to the likes of broadcaster Alex Jones, who previously accused the victims of the Parkland school shooting of being ‘crisis actors’, and far-right provocateur Laura Loomer.

Snopes, responding to Loomer’s implication that an emergency drill suggested that the shooting itself was staged, pointed out that such drills are now held every several weeks at Santa Fe High School, specifically because such shootings have become so frequent. Reporting by CBS found that those drills may have saved lives during Friday’s attack.

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While these claims are often made by real humans, they are likely amplified by automated social media bots. As of Saturday afternoon, “Santa Fe” was the top phrase being used by Twitter bots tracked by the site Bot Sentinel. Top hashtags, topics, mentions and retweets tracked by the site skew heavily toward pro-Trump, far-right, and conspiracy theory messages.

That suggests that bots, which are among the tools reportedly used by “Russian “troll farms,” are being used to leverage the Santa Fe shootings, spread misleading information, and deepen American political divides. Many ‘crisis actor’ and ‘false flag’ conspiracy theories assert, implicitly or explicitly, that mass shootings are engineered to restrict American gun rights – an issue which, alongside abortion, is perhaps the most divisive in America today.

The real motives behind the Texas shooting aren’t currently much more clear-cut. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who has reportedly confessed to the attack, posted images to his actual social media accounts of a jacket he may have worn during the shooting, bearing pins including a German Iron Cross, a Soviet hammer and sickle, and Cthulhu, a science-fictional monster. What is clear is his preoccupation with guns and violence – he posted various images of weapons and a t-shirt reading “Born to Kill,” and expressed plans to join the military.

Controlling misleading news and hate speech has over the past two years become an overriding concern for social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Facebook last year said that it would massively expand its content screening and security operations, and both Twitter and Facebook have become more aggressive in censuring and suspending bad actors, recently including Alex Jones.