The shooting in Uvalde, Texas, began just before noon. The earliest, awful details that emerged were all too familiar from previous episodes of horror at American schools: some unknown number of dead children. A shooter with high-capacity weaponry. Frantic families, grim officials, few answers.
From certain corners of the internet, a familiar pattern of lies spread in tandem.
“I’m sorry but I have to say it. We have to have another false flag shooting, killing small children,” one poster wrote on the right-wing site Patriots.win soon after the events unfolded.
Even before Uvalde police said they had the shooter in custody on Tuesday, Twitter users began to speculate the mass killing was a “false flag,” implying the violence had been secretly orchestrated by figures beyond the shooter himself.
Chatter on far-right forums like 4chan echoed the speculation. Some users alleged without evidence the event was a hoax that was entirely staged and claimed no lives.
Later that day, “GhostEzra,” the account name of a Telegram user and QAnon influencer with 276,000 subscribers, posted, “False flag shootings abound,” garnering tens of thousands of views and nearly 600 comments. Other QAnon-related Telegram channels followed with similar false flag claims.
That evening, one of the largest conspiracy-theory media figures in the world amplified the narrative. Alex Jones and his co-host flirted with the conspiracy theory during an “emergency broadcast” of “Infowars” that evening, calling the timing of the Uvalde killings “convenient.”
“There is a global government being set up right now, one of their main agendas is to disarm the population,” Jones’ co-host warned.
The next morning, Ann Vandersteel, a conspiracy theory podcast host with a large following, wrote, “Does America have the stones to call it what it is? A false flag shooting to take our guns. Child sacrifice is part of the agenda and a means to the end. It’s SICK.”
From 4chan to prominent pols
These baseless myths have become a standard component of the aftermath of nearly every mass shooting. They were concocted and spread after dozens of people were murdered while dancing at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida; enjoying a country music concert in Las Vegas; and attending class on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida.
Claims are often made first by anonymous posters on far-right or unmoderated sites, like 4chan or Patriots.win. But soon enough, they’re picked up by influencers, major media figures and even public officials. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has endorsed such false flag claims about the Parkland massacre.
Just 10 days prior to the Uvalde attack, after a white supremacist targeted Black people in Buffalo, New York, slaying 10 people in a supermarket, Arizona State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Trump acolyte and a powerful figure in the MAGA movement, appeared to insinuate in online posts that the “feds” were behind the carnage there. “Fed boy summer has started in Buffalo,” Rogers wrote cryptically on Gettr and other platforms.
Notions of government conspiracies have followed major events long before the internet existed. And aspects of such theories, like the false flag claim, gained currency in conspiracy-minded circles through earlier events, like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the mainstream phenomenon where these theories are entertained and shared following mass shooting events does have a recent genesis, experts say: The December 2012 massacre of two dozen young children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
An awful legacy of Sandy Hook
“There certainly are lots of examples of things that people have called false flags prior to Sandy Hook that existed,” said Amanda Crawford, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut who has extensively studied Sandy Hook misinformation. “But as far as entering the more mainstream lexicon, that definitely came with Sandy Hook.”
This is in large part because they were promoted — repeatedly, over weeks, months and years — by the far-right provocateur Jones, who built his audience and media empire by repurposing online conspiracy theories as mass media broadcast fodder.
And the ideas promoted by Jones and others have offered a blueprint for denying mass violence in the decade since, despite years of defamation suits that have reportedly cost his companies at least $10 million in legal fees.
“In all the shootings since Sandy Hook, there was this existing storyline. They don’t need to prove that XYZ mass shooting wasn’t real. All they have to do is go, ‘Here’s all this stuff we put out there about Sandy Hook, and if the government did it in Sandy Hook, then they did it in Pulse, and they did it in the next shooting and the next shooting,’” Crawford said. “And so it’s just now this conspiracy overlay that they can put over any mass shootings.”
Disinformation researcher and computer scientist Kate Starbird of the University of Washington has extensively analyzed how this overlay works online. Alternative media spaces, where these conspiracy theories thrive, push similar theories about different crises, often building off previous narratives.
“Though the explanations are dynamic and adapted to fit each particular event, the theories are consistent in that they begin with the idea that the narrative being promoted by mainstream media and government officials is false, and they work to find another ‘alternative narrative,’” her team wrote in one report.
As these theories spread, families of the victims are often vilified, leading to doxing and harassment, compounding the trauma of losing a loved one.
The price of this macabre mythmaking is paid by those who already lost the most from the horrific incidents. In Newtown, families who lost children faced vitriol on and offline for years after the shooting. Victims’ relatives have said that conspiracists stalked them at home, harassed them at public events and sent them death threats accusing them of being involved in a mass government conspiracy.
“It is just very opportunistic”
The same day as the Uvalde massacre, a federal judge allowed a defamation suit by Sandy Hook families against Jones to proceed to trial on the amount of damages the families can collect from Jones and Infowars. The families had sued Jones for claiming the shooting that took their children’s lives was “staged,” “synthetic,” “manufactured,” “a giant hoax” and “completely fake with actors.”
On Jones’ “Infowars” program on Wednesday, a more restrained-sounding Jones did not explicitly say the Uvalde massacre was a false flag, though he insinuated as much.
“I don’t want to say this was staged [by] provocateurs,” he said. “I’m like, well, I would predict a lot of mass shootings right before the election and then, like clockwork, it’s happening. To me, it is just very opportunistic what is happening.”
Jones’ co-host, Capitol riot defendant Owen Shroyer, summed up one motivating logic behind these conspiracies:
“There is a global government being set up right now, one of their main agendas is to disarm the population,” Shroyer said. “That’s going to be extremely hard to do in America, that is unless they can put you in an emotional state where you think, ‘Oh, it’s for the good of the people to turn in my guns.’”
Some people who promote these theories, like Jones, profit from it. (Jones earned a reported $165 million over three years as the lawsuits against him progressed.) Many are simply trolling. For others, conspiratorial explanations can help organize an incomprehensibly horrifying situation into something that makes sense.
The appeal of a conspiracy theory can be “really super simple,” said Stephanie Kelley-Romano, a professor of rhetoric at Bates College who researches myths and conspiracies. “We drop our kids off at school, and we want to believe that they’re safe. It’s terrifying to think that they’re not.”
Crawford has spoken to Sandy Hook “truthers,” as they’re sometimes known, who are also parents, and told her as much. One former truther told a New York Magazine reporter in 2016 that she became involved in trutherism because “I was really traumatized by what happened at Sandy Hook.”
“I don’t really know what the heck you people are doing, but I’d like to believe these little babies didn’t die,” the woman recalled thinking.
A vast conspiracy is also a better-suited explanation for a vast tragedy, said Kelley-Romano. How else are we to understand that, sometimes, a person can snuff out 10 or 20 lives on a whim? That sometimes children go to school and don’t come back home? Or, for that matter, that a virus can stalk us in our homes and workplaces, rendering one person ill and leaving another be?
“We want explanations that are as big or impactful as are the tragedies [themselves],” said Kelley-Romano.
Another pernicious aspect of conspiracy theories like false flag claims is that they are often self-reinforcing. Research has found that a person’s belief in one conspiracy theory correlates with their likelihood of believing in another.
And the very act of finding a preferred narrative on an alternative site promotes skepticism of mainstream news sources, thus reinforcing trust in the alternative news spaces — where more such conspiracies can be found.
For those inclined to believe them, conspiratorial sites help to fill an informational vacuum. The chaos of a crisis is where conspiracy theories thrive, said Melanie Smith, who oversees a team of digital analysts and open-source investigators at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that researches extremism.
“There is so much confusion, and there is that lack of information that disinformation can take hold very, very quickly,” she said.
Compounding grief with lies
As with Sandy Hook, the cost of this misinformation is greatest for the grieving families themselves. Denying the scope of a crisis leeches time and resources away from the people affected by a mass shooting, researchers at the University of Central Florida have found.
“Those amplifying messages that deny the authenticity of well-documented crises … have the potential to disrupt personal and community-wide healing and to delay or derail the development of positive solutions to recurring crises,” the researchers wrote.
In the face of this, experts say that mainstream platforms need to be mindful of the ways that fringe ideas can spread and be prepared to quell the spread of disinformation related to crisis events.
“Those are narratives that begin in fringe spaces and become more mainstream as time goes on,” Smith, the digital analyst, said. “There’s much more that the mainstream platforms could be doing to restrict search results, to demonetize content related to an attack or a mass attack, and just generally have more robust policies that prevent them from spreading in the first place.”
Mainstream media more broadly cannot be distracted by the salacious and spurious details that fester in online fringe spaces, said Kelley-Romano. Doing so gives precedence to clean conspiracy over the messy reality that we actually live in.
“With stories that are conspiratorial in nature, oftentimes, they are more sensational, they’re more dramatic, they’re clickbait,” she said. But after 10 years of this cycle — of horrific violence and a relentless conspiracy response online — news consumers know what to expect, she added.
“We’re ready to move past the dramatic headlines and look at what is going on here,” she said. “Why is this going on? Does it have to be like this?”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.