As the dead were still being counted on Sunday afternoon, an old phantom reappeared from massacres past.
“Sam Hyde,” this phantom is called, described variously on online message boards as a Nazi, a Klansman or a homicidal video gamer — but always as a killer.
In Sunday’s version of the rumor, Sam Hyde was said to have killed 26 people inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex. — just as he had been blamed a month earlier for the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and in San Bernardino, Calif.; Minneapolis; and Kalamazoo, Mich., before that.
No such Sam Hyde exists, but fooling people into blaming him for the latest mass atrocity has become a sort of game in certain corners of the Internet. A “meme,” as they say.
And yet at 4:13 p.m. Sunday, it was not some obscure tweeter who blamed a phantom for what happened in Sutherland Springs. It was a congressman from Texas, and he named Sam Hyde as the shooter live on CNN.
That same evening, as news of the shooting spread across the country, some people got to talking about what exactly happened inside First Baptist Church. Their conversation took a dark turn as they speculated that the massacre was a “false flag” — not the act of a lone gunman, as authorities said, but a conspiracy to manipulate the public toward some nefarious end.
This sort of fantasy is also something of a tradition. Conspiratorial threads about false flags have festered on the Internet after many recent U.S. massacres. But this particular conversation didn’t take place online. It was overheard outside a hospital in San Antonio, among families of the victims from the church, just yards away from where survivors recovered from their wounds.
Sam Hyde and false flags. What we have for years referred to as Internet hoaxes — online byproducts of actual atrocities — have manifested in the real world since Sunday’s mass shooting. Fantasies once consigned to the fringes of 4chan, Twitter and Reddit now seem to creep up to within a few miles of the crime scene.
About an hour’s drive from the carnage in Sutherland Springs, five women gathered after sundown outside an emergency room where victims of the morning shooting were still being brought in.
The women knew some of the victims, they said. Several sounded upset because authorities wouldn’t let them see any bodies. One wondered aloud if a victim who had been declared dead by officials that day actually still lived. “We have to get to the bottom of this,” one woman said.
“False flag,” said another, and then another, and another.
That same night, the term was replicating across 4chan’s /pol/ message board — a sort of online cauldron in which many of the Internet’s rumors, memes and hoaxes are formed. The powers that be must have concocted the church shooting to distract from the one in Las Vegas, one writer claimed. Another wrote that the CIA now plans a false flag operation “every first Sunday of the month.”
Likewise, some saw a false flag operation after October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. Before that, a congressman suggested a left-wing plot was behind the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
The women outside University Hospital in San Antonio on Sunday evening didn’t explain who, exactly, they suspected had arranged the massacre of people they knew 40 miles away. They spoke vaguely of some “operation.”
When a reporter for The Washington Post approached the women, she was pushed and shoved away. One woman grabbed the reporter’s phone and accused her of recording what they’d said.
“She is part of it,” a woman said, before police arrived and evicted the reporter from the hospital.
Unlike the CIA’s monthly “false flag” operation, a man named Sam Hyde really exists.
Well, there are many real Sam Hydes, of course. But one in particular can help explain how Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) ended up erroneously naming Sam Hyde as the perpetrator of the worst mass shooting to befall his state.
The real Sam Hyde is man whom Forbes described last year as a “second-rate Internet comedian” in a story about why 4chan users and various other Internet pranksters kept trying to frame him for atrocities across the United States.
“It’s crazy, haha, yeah, crazy, haha!” the real Hyde wrote to the magazine. Forbes noted that his antics — including a fake TEDx talk and a fake pony-dating simulator — had been popular on 4chan message boards before its users reinvented the comedian as an immortal gunman, sometime in 2015.
In any event, it became a meme to claim “Sam Hyde is the shooter” after every atrocity. So, of course, the name was resurrected Sunday — not that Gonzalez knew anything about it when news stations invited him to speak about the tragedy in Sutherland Springs.
“Congressman Gonzalez does not follow memes, Internet sensations, or twitter trends and was unaware that this name is a viral Internet hoax that has been connected to mass shootings in the past,” his press secretary, Aryn Fields, wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. The congressman was waiting to be interviewed on an unnamed TV station Sunday afternoon, Fields wrote. “While on hold, a producer informed the congressman that reports indicated that the shooter was a man named Sam Hyde.”
This would have been no more than a few hours after the church shooting, before authorities released the real suspect’s name as Devin Patrick Kelley — a 26-year-old man who lived nearby and whose mother-in-law attended the church.
After being interviewed on the TV station, Fields wrote, Gonzalez immediately phoned in to CNN. What happened next has since spread across the Internet.
“Do you know anything about the attacker?” asked the anchor.
“It was reported to me he’s actually not from this community,” Gonzalez said. “Apparently his name was released as Sam Hyde. That was the name I was given.”
This caused a brief flurry, as it appeared to be the first confirmation of the killer’s name. But among those for whom the Sam Hyde meme had long ago turned stale, the prevailing reaction was disbelief that a congressman had fallen for it.
“Given how fast the events transpired Sunday, Congressman Gonzalez took this report as reliable information,” the press secretary wrote Monday. “It is something that he deeply regrets.”
Sam Hyde and false flags are hardly the only hoaxes to follow the mass murders in Sutherland Springs, in which more than two dozen very real people, including an 18-month-old child and three generations of a single family, were killed. They are everywhere. Fake images suggesting the shooter was a member of an anti-fascist movement made their way to a news site controlled by the Russian government. On Facebook, a man found the personal page of a woman who was reported to have died at the church and posted to it: “Are you real or a simulation by intelligence agencies?”
And so it was with Las Vegas, and so many tragedies before that — delusions and deceptions advance from the edges of the Internet into the core of our grief.
Whitney Phillips is a researcher at Mercer University who studies online hoaxes, the trolls who invent them, the news outlets that advance them and the people they affect. Watching them take life on Sunday, she wrote to The Post, has nearly brought her to despair.
“Every single mass shooting in the 10 years I’ve studied these behaviors, it unfolds in exactly the same way, again and again, like clockwork,” Phillips said. “The Sam Hyde joke worked this time around because reporters reported on it last time around, and the time before that, and the time before that. And even efforts to debunk the hoax keep the game alive, and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to not benefit these manipulations other than not reporting on what they do.”
Terri Rupar contributed to this report.