Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios
In the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, right-wing conspiracy theories moved faster than ever from fringe to the mainstream, thanks to a misinformation infrastructure that's grown stronger over time.
Why it matters: The pipeline of misinformation moving from obscure internet platforms to the mouths of sitting members of Congress "seems to be going a lot faster now," said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, director of intelligence operations at GroupSense, a threat intelligence firm.
- "The misinformation narratives that start on places like 4chan or Reddit make it to the public consciousness really quickly," he added.
- They're "getting picked up by individuals with more power and louder voices," said Jared Holt, resident fellow at Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. "So the effect of misinformation has felt like it's multiplying."
Details: In the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, several big conspiracy theories quickly took hold, with many falsely characterizing the shooter or victims to match fringe political narratives.
- In Uvalde, misinformation falsely claiming the shooter was transgender appears to have quickly spread from 4chan, an anonymous message board, to the mainstream. The pictures used to support the falsehood were pulled from a user on Reddit. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) tweeted that the shooter was a "transsexual leftist illegal alien," but later deleted the post.
- In Buffalo, misinformation falsely claiming that the shooting was a "false flag" operation — an attack disguised to look like it was made by the opposite side in a conflict — spread quickly in the aftermath of the massacre. A conservative Arizona state lawmaker is under investigation by the Arizona Senate for her Telegram post endorsing the theory.
Be smart: Conspiracy theories can work both ways, rewriting history after terrible tragedies or inspiring the events in the first place.
- The "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory that motivated the Buffalo gunman had been echoed by conservative members of Congress and mainstream conservative media personalities.
Zoom out: "Shootings are particularly rife for misinformation," said Holt. Bad actors will capitalize on situations where "there's a big window of gaps and unknowns" to promote their own political ideology.
- Holt notes that in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, the national conversation around extremism online created "an appetite to almost settle the score on this white nationalist narrative" — to balance "a very clear far-right act of violence" with rumors the perpetrator was transgender.
How it works: The decentralization of conversations across dozens of fringe online platforms, apps and messaging boards has made it easier for conspiracy-theory spreaders to source information that feeds falsehoods in a way that's hard to trace.
- "Often, it strikes me that these kinds of communities or figures … 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 and then scour the internet to patch details in there so that 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 , which lends them more legitimacy.
The big picture: The past two shooting massacres show that conspiracy theories can jump directly from fringe platforms to mainstream conversations almost instantaneously without circulating too widely on intermediate blogs or news sites.
- Knowing which types of narratives are likely to stick gives conservative lawmakers more cover to promote such falsehoods.
- "There are some common stories that always get spread, and they’re usually about the shooter's identity — and they usually use the same pictures and names," said Webster-Jacobsen.
- Certain narratives, like the claim that an event is a false flag operation, repeatedly appear in the aftermath of breaking news, including the Jan. 6 Capitol siege.
Yes, but: As the same narratives become more pervasive with each new shooting massacre, it's becoming easier for tech platforms and the media to identify and debunk them.
- "I've been happy to see that this kind of discussion, and the immune system that the national media has developed over time, has been going in a positive direction," Holt said.
What to watch: A lack of consistent information from law enforcement agencies can also give conspiracy theory mongers an information void to fill.
- "People want answers, and if they’re not getting 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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