Right-wing disinformation machine revs up after shootings

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In the wake of the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, right-wing conspiracy theories have moved from the fringe to the mainstream faster than ever, thanks to a disinformation infrastructure which has grown stronger over time.

Why is it important: The disinformation pipeline moving from obscure internet platforms into the mouths of sitting members of Congress “seems to be moving much faster now,” said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, director of intelligence operations at GroupSense, a business intelligence firm. threat.

  • “Misinformation stories that start on places like 4chan or Reddit come into the public consciousness very quickly,” he added.
  • They “are being taken up by individuals with more power and louder voices,” said Jared Holt, resident researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “So the effect of misinformation felt like it was multiplying.”

Details: In the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, several major conspiracy theories quickly took hold, with many mischaracterizing the shooter or victims to match fringe political narratives.

  • In Uvalde, misinformation falsely claiming the shooter was transgender appears to have spread quickly from 4chan, an anonymous message board, to the general public. The images used to support the lie were taken from a user on Reddit. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) tweeted that the shooter was a “transsexual leftist illegal alien,” but later deleted the post.
  • To Buffalo, Misinformation falsely claiming that the shooting was a “false flag” operation – an attack disguised to give the impression that it had been committed by the opposing side in a conflict – quickly spread in the aftermath of the massacre. A conservative Arizona state lawmaker is being investigated by the Arizona Senate for her Telegram post endorsing the theory.
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Be smart: Conspiracy theories can work both ways, rewriting history after terrible tragedies or inspiring events in the first place.

Zoom out: “Shootings are particularly conducive to misinformation,” Holt said. Bad actors will capitalize on situations where “there is a big window of gaps and unknowns” to promote their own political ideology.

  • Holt notes that in the wake of the mass shooting in Buffalo, the national conversation about extremism online has created “an appetite to almost settle the score on this white nationalist narrative” — to balance “an act of violence from extreme right very clear” with rumors that the author was transgender.
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How it works: The decentralization of conversations across dozens of fringe platforms, apps and online messaging forums has made it easier for conspiracy theorists to find information that fuels lies in ways that are hard to trace.

  • “A lot of times it strikes me that these kinds of communities or personalities … want to believe a certain thing, and someone on the internet finds something to provide source material,” Holt said. “They come up with the concept first, then scour the internet to add details to it so it can live on.”
  • Right-wing conspiracies are often seeded on fringe social networks like 4chan or Patriot.win, or private messaging apps like Telegram and Discord, and are then picked up by larger websites and news outlets, giving them more legitimacy.

The big picture: The last two shooting massacres show that conspiracy theories can leap directly from fringe platforms into mainstream conversations almost instantly without circulating too widely on intermediate blogs or news sites.

  • Knowing what kinds of narratives are likely to stick gives conservative lawmakers more cover to promote such lies.
  • “There are common stories that always get out there, and they’re usually about the identity of the shooter — and they’re usually using the same images and names,” Webster-Jacobsen said.
  • Some accounts, such as the claim that an event is a false flag operation, appear repeatedly following breaking news stories, including the January 6 Capitol siege.
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Yes, but: As the same stories become more prevalent with each new massacre, it becomes easier for tech platforms and the media to identify and debunk them.

  • “I’ve been happy to see that kind of discussion, and the immune system that the national media has developed over time, is moving in a positive direction,” Holt said.

What to watch: A lack of consistent information from law enforcement can also give conspiracy theorists an information void to fill.

  • “People want answers, and if they don’t get them from authorities, they’ll get them somewhere else,” said Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who focuses on social media manipulation.

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