A gunman opened fire inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, killing 26 people and leaving 20 others injured. As initial information about the shooting was reported, not much was immediately known about the suspect, whom authorities later identified as 26-year-old Devin P. Kelley.
On Monday, authorities said the shooting was the result of a "domestic situation" and that Kelley had sent "threatening texts" to his mother-in-law, who attended the church where the shooting took place.
But by the time news of the actual motivations of the shooter were shared by authorities, a false narrative had already taken hold thanks to right-wing commentators, websites, YouTubers, and other sources. With no evidence to back up their claims, they peddled a conspiracy theory that Kelley was affiliated with "antifa." Here's how it spread.
Hours after the shooting, an old tweet posted by pro-Trump commentator Jack Posobiec, a frequent source of misinformation, began circulating again. His tweet, a screenshot of a conversation, was posted before the shooting and contains an alleged message exchange between "antifa" members, or anti-fascists, and supporters.
At the same time, other pro-Trump commentators began openly speculating that the shooter was connected to the anti-fascist group.
Alex Jones then labeled the gunman, without evidence, an "Antifa killer."
Google gave the false conspiracy theory a boost. Searches for the name "Devin Patrick Kelley" brought up tweets with misinformation about the shooter being affiliated with an anti-fascist group.
Google told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the results are based on their internal algorithm, not Twitter's search function.
"The search results appearing from Twitter, which surface based on our ranking algorithms, are changing second by second and represent a dynamic conversation that is going on in near real-time," Google said. "We’ll continue to look at ways to improve how we rank tweets that appear in search."
This is not the first time the search engine helped boost misinformation. During the Las Vegas shooting, a thread from 4Chan made it into Google's top stories.
One of the first websites to write about the false narrative was YourNewsWire.com, which is known to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation.
The article went so far as to publish a fake account of what happened in the church, citing an unverified screenshot of a text message. The post has over 240,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, and was shared more than 8,600 times on Twitter, according to social sharing tracking tool BuzzSumo.
It falsely claimed the shooter was carrying an "antifa" flag and said "this was a communist revolution." At the time it was published, no other outlets had reported the same details, which were completely fabricated.
To illustrate the post, YourNewsWire included an image of a Facebook profile for the shooter with an antifascist flag photoshopped in. This screenshot has since been shared to other social media, but it is not authentic.
The Facebook page "Antifa United," which regularly posts news about the group and runs an online store, said the image of the flag was taken from its shop. It's also one of the first photos when searching for "antifa flag" on Google Images. An archive from January shows the image in the online store.
The false conspiracy theory was reported by mainstream media outlets. One outlet that picked it up was Newsweek, which didn't refute the misinformation in the headline.
Although Newsweek's article focused on why the conspiracy is false, the headline didn't reflect the content. The author of the article, Michael Edison Hayden, sent BuzzFeed News comment after this post was published.
“Nobody reached out from BuzzFeed for a comment on that headline before publishing the story and the reporting—which is one line and a screenshot--strikes me as being purely conjecture and unfair to the reporting. Antifa was put in quotes in that headline," he wrote. "There are two other headlines. One for social and one for the website. Those aren’t mentioned in the BuzzFeed story. Also, the story represented a follow-up to several other antifa conspiracy stories I’ve done on my beat, and many of my readers knew that.”
Hayden sent BuzzFeed the two other headlines, but neither refuted the misinformation directly.
RT, the Russian news outlet funded by the Kremlin, also gave the false conspiracy a boost.
RT's post about the suspect initially included mention of the anti-fascist banner, according to the edit history of the Facebook post. It took five hours for RT to remove the misinformation. "RT previously posted unverified information to FB as part of our Texas shooting news breaking. This was an editorial mistake and has been deleted," RT said in the comments.
The false claim of an "antifa" connection also took off on YouTube. Searching for the name of the shooter with the word "antifa" brings up videos with thousands of views that push the false narrative.
The misinformation continues to circulate on conservative websites, with thousands sharing, liking, and commenting on the articles.
Some people really believe the false conspiracy. Members of far-right group The Tenth Crusade are talking about a violent retaliation.
—Blake Montgomery contributed to this report.
Jane Lytvynenko is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto, Canada. PGP fingerprint: A088 89E6 2500 AD3C 8081 BAFB 23BA 21F3 81E0 101C.
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