WASHINGTON ― Authorities are still trying to figure out why a man shot at least 26 people to death in a Texas church on Sunday. But the lack of a specific motive has not stopped right-wing conspiracy theorists from blaming their opponents — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), atheists, social justice warriors, communists, the Islamic State, liberals and anti-fascist protesters — for the slaughter.
The speed at which these theories spread shows how propagandists take advantage of the information vacuum after a shooting to serve their own ends.
The shooting was not racially motivated or caused by religious beliefs, authorities said Monday, though they noted there was a “domestic situation.” (The suspect, Devin Patrick Kelley, was previously convicted for domestic assault.) But in the hours after the shooting, the public didn’t know that. Instead, conspiracy theorists took what shreds of information were available to peddle plausible-sounding theories — or simply make up lies. Here’s how it unfolded:
Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET
Around this time, the shooting took place.
1:24 p.m. ET
A reporter for KSAT-TV in San Antonio, Texas, tweeted: “#BREAKING confirmed shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, police say multiple victims.” As news continued to break, most reporters were careful not to draw attention to unverified information.
1:58 p.m. ET
Mike Cernovich, a right-wing media personality, had been retweeting some of the few details provided by reporters at outlets like KSAT. But at this time, Cernovich ― who portrays himself as a legitimate journalist ― sent his own tweet, where he noted that the church had a “largely white denomination” and speculated, without presenting evidence, “Antifa terrorist attack?”
Antifa is shorthand for anti-fascist and refers to a loose network of activists, some of whom aim to physically confront white supremacists. The group has served as a convenient boogeyman for conservatives, including President Donald Trump. The day before the shooting, far-right media had warned of an “antifa apocalypse,” with activists waging violent civil war. In reality, an anti-Trump group, Refuse Fascism, had called for peaceful political protests around the country, and a few occurred, without incident. The threatened antifa uprising had failed to materialize.
At this point, there were still no publicly confirmed details about the shooter.
3 p.m. ET
A screenshot of an alleged message by a guy named Dave Pollack was making the Twitter rounds. “Go after the heart of the far-right: conservative churches,” he allegedly wrote.
“Dave” will become important.
3:41 p.m. ET
A Twitter user named “Mustachio” shared what he claimed was a video manifesto of the shooter ― whom he called a “Muslim convert, Samir al-Hajeed” ― along with fake photos. He was trolling. (Spreading the name “Samir al-Hajeed” after a shooting is a long-standing hoax.) As Snopes reported, Mustachio was cited by a couple of websites, including right-wing site Freedom Daily, which did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment.
5:37 p.m. ET
Around this time, the suspect was publicly identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, and a Daily Beast editor tweeted a story that included pictures from a Facebook page allegedly belonging to the shooter. (HuffPost was not able to independently corroborate this page belonged to Kelley.)
People immediately delved into the shooter’s Facebook “likes,” which are, in general, a crappy journalistic tool. The suspect allegedly liked atheist pages, CNN and something called Together We Rise, according to Heavy. Conspiracy theorists pointed to the latter as evidence that the shooter supported Bernie Sanders. Some liberal groups with names similar to Together We Rise exist on Facebook, but the only Together We Rise page we could find that users can like on Facebook is a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of foster youth.
The shooter also allegedly had a LinkedIn account where he listed causes he supported, including “Animal Welfare,” “Children,” “Civil Rights and Social Action,” “Environment” and “Human Rights.” To propagandists, this seemed to prove the shooter was some kind of liberal social justice warrior.
In response to a question about whether LinkedIn users simply choose pre-selected causes from a drop-down menu, LinkedIn spokesperson Tatiana De Almeida said, “That is correct ― there is a dropdown menu of options such as Economic Empowerment, Education and more that the member can select from.”
People used this information as proof of a motive, anyway.
6 p.m. ET
The website YourNewsWire tweeted out an article making wild claims about the shooter’s connections to antifa. The story cobbled together photos from the Facebook page allegedly belonging to the shooter with a photograph of a different person holding an anti-fascist flag.
The article claimed that the shooter “vowed to start a civil war by ‘targeting white conservative churches’ and causing anarchy in the United States.” The story also included screenshots from a new guy: “Brian (cousin).” This person, Brian, supposedly “talked to some people who were inside.” That’s how Brian learned that two shooters entered the church, threw an antifa flag over the pulpit and then killed people who failed to properly recite verses from Karl Marx’s three-volume foundational critique of capitalism, Das Kapital.
There is zero evidence any of this happened. The byline on the story was “Baxter Dmitry.” No one in U.S. public records has that name.
The story appeared to be shared more than 264,000 times on Facebook, making it a blockbuster.
“Dmitry” and YourNewsWire did not respond to a request for comment about Brian.
6:14 p.m. ET
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones joined the fray. Jones — a prominent promoter of the false theory that antifa was going to violently overthrow the Trump administration on Nov. 4 — wondered whether the shooter was part “of the Antifa revolution against Christians and conservatives” or “a Isis op?”
Authorities have provided no evidence the shooting was connected to the Islamic State militant group also known as ISIS, and again, said it was not religiously or politically motivated.
6:42 p.m. ET
Cernovich doubled down. He tweeted that “Photos of Texas shooter is consistent with profile of Antifa member. This is looking more and more like Antifa terror.” (Authorities have provided no evidence to date of the shooter being tied to antifa.)
In response to questions from HuffPost about the legitimacy of his reporting and how he can identify antifa members based on photographs, he asked: “Do you disavow this HuffPo column claiming “a violent response to Trump is as logical as any”? Do you disavow this HuffPo column calling for a “white wounding”? Do you disavow poltical [sic] violence by antifa? Or do you see yourself as a PR agent for antifa?” (The referenced columns appeared on HuffPost’s contributor platform and were written by a person who is not a HuffPost employee.)
Sunday Afternoon: Remember Dave?
Sometime on Sunday, a YouTube user published a video linking the shooter to antifa. It claimed to show the same screenshots of the alleged message posted by “Dave Pollack” revealing secret antifa plans: “Go after the heart of the far-right: conservative churches.” Dave’s message was allegedly made on a Facebook page for It’s Going Down, a digital community center for anarchists and other activists. Conspiracy theorists pointed to this message, without evidence, as proof that Dave inspired the shooter.
We did not have enough information to find Dave. A spokesperson for It’s Going Down told HuffPost in an email that they couldn’t find Dave, either. “If the screenshots are not fake, we would highly suspect they were posted there by online trolls in the lead up to November 4th, to be used by conspiracy theorists to claim that antifascists wanted to engage in violence against everyday Americans.”
The group also denied that the shooter is involved with anti-fascist organizing. “As the far-Right did after the Las Vegas shooting, they have tried to draw a connection between the two as a means of influencing public debate and also keeping their own conspiracy theory based internet companies and careers afloat,” the spokesperson said.
That same YouTube video claimed the shooter’s most recent voter registration showed he listed his political party affiliation as “UAF,” which the presenter claimed stands for “United Against Fascism Party,” a British anti-fascist group. The alleged voter registration showed Kelley registered at a former address in Colorado. The “United Against Fascism Party” is not an active political party in Colorado or Texas.
The shooter’s actual Colorado voter registration states that his party affiliation is “UAF.”
In Colorado, as in many other states, UAF stands for unaffiliated. Kelley’s Texas voter registration states that he did not register with a political party.
The shooter was not registered with any political party, according to public records.
By late Monday night, hundreds of thousands of users across multiple platforms had shared fake news about the shooter.
As these theories swirled around the internet, Google was criticized for helping spread their rise. Justin Hendrix, executive director of the NYC Media Lab, tweeted screenshots showing that the search engine was listing conspiratorial tweets about the shooter as “Popular on Twitter.” (HuffPost did not independently verify Hendrix’s screenshots.)
On Monday, the search engine also auto-completed the shooter’s name, Devin Patrick Kelley, with antifa, according to The Daily Beast.
“The search results appearing from Twitter, which surfaced based on our ranking algorithms, are changing second by second,” a Google spokesperson told HuffPost in an email. “For the queries in question, they are not the first results we show on the page. Instead, they appear after news sources, including our Top Stories carousel which we have been constantly updating.”
“Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically generated,” a Google spokesperson also noted.
“Because of this, terms that appear in Autocomplete may be unexpected or unpleasant,” the spokesperson added. “In this case, there is great interest in the topic.”
On Monday, radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested that the Texas shooting, along with an alleged assault on Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) by his neighbor, the New York truck attack and threats against the Environmental Protection Agency together served as evidence of his larger point: “Terrorists come straight from the Democrat party.”