There is zero evidence the 18-year-old who killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday was a transgender woman, an undocumented immigrant or a Democrat. But that hasn’t stopped the churning of a massive disinformation campaign on right-wing media falsely claiming all of these things to try and deflect blame.
“Texas school shooter. A teenage, trans immigrant LEFTIST whom they are trying to paint as ‘right-wing lunatic/white supremacist’ DEMONRATS LIE,” one user posted on former President Donald Trump’s social media network, Truth Social, emblematic of the false statements users can make on there unchecked.
The disinformation push reportedly began almost immediately after the shooting on 4chan, the anonymous message board favored by white nationalists, where users spread photos of a random trans woman who bears a passing resemblance to the actual shooter, Salvador Ramos, whom police said they killed responding to the massacre.
The woman in the widely disseminated photos has come and out said that she’s not the shooter — and that she doesn’t even live in Texas — and asked people to stop sharing the pictures of her apparently taken without her consent from Reddit.
In spite of that, the lie made its way to Republicans with big national followings, permanently establishing it as part of the shooting’s narrative.
“What drives an 18 year old to murder innocent children? I don’t know. But judging by the photos of him cross-dressing, we can assume there were plenty of signs that he was mentally disturbed and abused by the adults in his life,” the conservative commentator Candace Owens tweeted out to her 3.1 million followers on Wednesday, well after the trans shooter disinformation had been debunked.
Rep. Paul Gosar, the right-wing Arizona lawmaker, and Nelson Albino, a regional director for the Republican Hispanic National Assembly, both also repeated the disinformation about the shooter’s identity before deleting their tweets. Gosar called Ramos a “transsexual leftist illegal alien,” hitting on all the false points about him. Gosar seemed to acknowledge it was wrong by deleting the post, but by then it was too late.
Michael Hayden, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization that tracks hate groups, said the spread of disinformation following an event like the Texas shooting has two components: The people who actually believe what they’re reading online and those who know it’s false but spread it anyway because they want to distract from the real issues.
“There are people who seek to believe it because they’re prejudiced, and because of their prejudice they’re inclined to believe such a thing,” Hayden told HuffPost. “And then there are people who want to change the subject away from gun violence because the subject is politically potentially bad for Republicans.”
The woman pictured in the viral photos, including one where she’s draped in a trans flag, said she’s endured threats and harassment. “They are actively trying to ruin my life instead of helping the families who were affected,” she said.
The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s biggest LGBTQ advocacy organization, blasted politicians like Gosar who use their public platforms “to spread disinformation and dehumanize and attack a person completely unconnected to the tragedy,” HRC spokesperson Laurel Powell said in a statement to HuffPost.
“It is important that we keep the focus here on the families of those killed and injured at Robb Elementary School yesterday, and not allow online trolls to distract us from the real toll of gun violence. And we continue to call on our leaders to take meaningful action to reform our gun laws.”
Hayden said it’s impossible to know the actors behind disinformation campaigns, who can maintain anonymity on sites like 4chan. But it’s clear why they do it, he said. “Obviously they’re exploiting a hatred that they feel like you can get away with these days, which is against trans people. Beyond that, they want to make the conversation messy. They want to make it about these charged social issues.”
At least on Truth Social, some users appeared to understand what was happening and warned others.
“The transgender person who owns these pictures is still active on the internet denying they are the shooter, but owning the transgender images of themselves,” Truth Social user @Qellynon, who has 13,000 followers, posted. “I am by no stretch of the imagination an ally of the transgender community ... but the shooter being trans is not accurate and detracts from the real issue.”