Geary Danley was not the gunman in Las Vegas who killed at least 50 people late Sunday. But for hours on the far-right Internet, would-be sleuths scoured Danley’s Facebook likes, family photographs and marital history to try to “prove” that he was.
Danley, according to an archived version of a Facebook page bearing that name, might have been married to a Marilou Danley. Police were looking for a woman by that name in the hours after the shooting, but later said they did not think she was involved. To name someone as a mass murderer based on that evidence would be irresponsible and dangerous. But that’s exactly what a portion of the far-right Internet did overnight.
The briefest look at the viral threads and tweets falsely naming Geary Danley as the attacker makes it easy to guess why a bunch of right-wing trolls latched on to him: His Facebook profile indicated that he might be a liberal.
Authorities have since identified the gunman as Stephen Paddock, 64, who was later found dead in a hotel room on the Strip. His motives remain unknown. But the fake Danley story presented a complete, desirable package to the elements of the far-right Internet that spread it. That phony story quickly embedded itself into the algorithms of Google and Facebook, where sites promoting the rumor remained at the top of the results for anyone searching for Danley’s name.
In excited all-caps, one anonymous user on 4chan’s /pol/ board posted that Danley was a “REGISTERED DEMOCRAT!” The thread spread quickly, as did a crowdsourced wiki page about Danley on Everipedia that, according to its edit history, once said that “Geary opened fired [sic] on the 34th floor of the Mandalay Bay toward a concert happening across the street.”
The Everipedia article dedicated an entire section to what it alleged were Danley’s political views:
This narrative, backed by no evidence or confirmation of Danley’s involvement in the Las Vegas shooting, spread quickly. That Everipedia post had 77,000 views as of Monday morning, just hours after it was created. It has since been edited and no longer names Danley as the shooter. His personal photos, taken from Facebook, were still plastered all over the page.
But even as those rumors were thoroughly, conclusively debunked, this false narrative was picked up in the algorithms that, increasingly, have come to define a person’s public-facing identities. During a search I ran about 9 a.m. Monday, hours after the real shooting suspect — a different person — was identified, the entire first page of Google results for a search for Geary Danley’s full name were links to news sites, YouTube videos, message boards and even several /pol/ threads repeating the rumor about him. There was one exception: a link to Danley’s personal Facebook page. There were no links to debunkings or to any mainstream news outlets that had identified Paddock as the attacker.
And for a time on Monday morning, one of those 4chan threads falsely naming Danley as the shooter was promoted by Google as a “top story” for searches for his name, as one BuzzFeed reporter noticed.
The right-wing news site Gateway Pundit also picked up these rumors as fact in a now-deleted article. That article’s URL was still the top result for Danley’s name on Google in the early hours of Monday morning. The headline, still visible in search results, and remaining on the first page of results for Danley when I ran my 9 a.m. search, read, “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with anti-Trump Army.”
And on Facebook, a search for articles about Geary Danley promoted seven links leading to inaccurate stories about him. The eighth result is a debunking.