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How the Parkland teens became villains on the right-wing Internet

Emma González is a survivor of the Parkland shooting and a leader of the movement against gun violence. She has also become a target in far-right circles. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: Andrew Harnik/The Washington Post)

Less than a week after 17 people died in Parkland, Fla., right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza began taunting some of the teenage survivors of the massacre. “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs,” he tweeted on Feb. 20, commenting on a photo showing Parkland survivors crying as state legislators voted down a bill to ban military-style weapons.

D’Souza wrote another tweet, “Adults, 1, kids 0.” Combined, the two tweets have more than 25,000 likes and 8,000 retweets.

A fake photo of Emma González went viral on the far right, where Parkland teens are villains

Now, five weeks after the Parkland school shooting, D’Souza’s tweets seem almost quaint. As Emma González, David Hogg and the other Parkland teens fighting for gun control have become viral liberal heroes, the teens are villains on the right-wing Internet and fair game for the mockery and attacks that this group usually reserves for its adult enemies.

That infamy reached a wider audience this past weekend around the time of their March for Our Lives protest, when a doctored image that showed González ripping up a copy of the U.S. Constitution (she actually ripped up a gun target) went mildly viral on the Trump-supporting parts of the Internet, defended as “satire” by those who shared it.

Here’s a look back at how the Parkland student activists became such a target:

Day 1: Conspiracy theorists

The first to target the Parkland students were the conspiracy theorists. When a mass shooting like Parkland happens, conspiracy theorists begin to search for signs of a false flag — proof that the shooting was actually staged and/or carried out for political reasons — pretty much right away. They’re following what online trolling expert Whitney Phillips calls a “tragedy script”: The establishment is trying to take away your guns, they’ll use mass shootings to do that, and here are the tricks they use to manipulate the public. Anything irregular becomes conspiracy fodder.

We studied thousands of anonymous posts about the Parkland attack — and found a conspiracy in the making

An anonymous 8chan user told the fringe chat board to look for “crisis actors” just 47 minutes after the shooting happened. And if closed chat rooms and fringey boards such as 8chan, 4chan and some subreddits on Reddit are where conspiracy theorists coordinate, then Twitter is where those conspiracy theories — and the harassment that comes with them — are performed for the public. Within hours, anonymous Twitter users were in the mentions of students tweeting from their classrooms during the shooting, accusing them of being part of the conspiracy:

One Twitter thread, made just after midnight on the night of the attack, claimed to contain “Bombshell” information about Parkland. @Magapill (an account once approvingly retweeted by President Trump) shared a video interview with a student that has become the basis of a debunked Parkland conspiracy theory. The thread was retweeted more than 3,000 times.

All this happened before the Parkland students calling for gun control began their ascent to viral iconography. When they emerged, the campaign to discredit and debunk the Parkland students expanded.

Week 2: #MAGA Internet

“EXPOSED: School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist David Hogg’s Father in FBI, Appears To Have Been Coached On Anti-Trump Lines,” read a headline on Gateway Pundit. The article was one of a handful on far-right publications to emerge after the first weekend following the shooting.

Algorithms are one reason a conspiracy theory goes viral. Another reason might be you.

Hogg, along with González, had found their voices. In one CNN interview, the pair called for the National Rifle Association to “disband.” That interview was on the Monday after the attack. By Tuesday, an aide to Florida state Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Tampa) was fired for telling a reporter that Hogg and González were “not students … but actors.” As evidence, the aide sent the reporter one of several YouTube videos promoting that conspiracy theory.

Even a former U.S. congressman, Jack Kingston, joined in on Twitter: “O really? ‘Students’ are planning a nationwide rally? Not left-wing gun control activists using 17yr kids in the wake of a horrible tragedy? #Soros #Resistance #Antifa #DNC”

The conspiracy spread quickly, and the algorithms noticed. Soon, a video claiming that Hogg was an actor was the No. 1 trending video on YouTube.

Week 3: Fights with social media companies

In early March, the conspiracy Internet — and some of its Trump supporters — turned the conspiracy theories surrounding the Parkland students into a crusade against what they saw as censorship on major Silicon Valley platforms.

After a conspiracy video trended on YouTube, the platform cracked down on videos and creators who were promoting the false belief that the Parkland students were hired actors or reading from scripts to promote gun control. Enter Alex Jones.

How Alex Jones turned the Parkland shooting into a week-long news cycle about himself

Jones’s main YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers, and he made several videos about Hogg, such as “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines In TV Interview,” in the weeks after the shooting.

After CNN reported that the channel was 2 strikes away from a YouTube ban for violating the platform’s community guidelines, Jones started talking about censorship. He claimed his channel was about to be deleted (it wasn’t); he fundraised to support a fight against his enemies. This blitz became a week-long news cycle that captured the attention of Infowars’ supporters and opponents alike.

March for Our Lives: The memes go mainstream

On the eve of the March for Our Lives, the NRA delivered a message to the Parkland students who organized it: “No one would know your names” if a gunman hadn’t killed 17 people at their school, said a host on NRATV.

The Parkland teens, as they took on such a polarizing issue, were always going to have opponents — including from more conservative Parkland students who also survived the massacre. But the deeply personal, conspiracy-minded attacks targeting Hogg, González and their fellow classmate activists have gone from the conspiracy fringes to a larger audience.

And after the viral image of González ripping up the Constitution, Rep. Steve King’s campaign Facebook page (R-Iowa) shared a mocking meme about her. The post refers to a patch of the Cuban flag on her jacket worn during the march:

“This is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense.”

A day after the hoax targeting González went viral, the conservative blog Redstate published — and then updated — an article that falsely implied Hogg might not have been at school during the shooting at all.

“Something doesn’t add up” about Hogg’s whereabouts during the shooting, the original article claimed, focusing on a clip from an upcoming documentary where the student describes going home, grabbing his camera, and returning to interview students.

“It is not possible for him to have been in class and also have been at home, a three-mile bike ride away from campus,” the article concluded. “One of those stories is a lie. Hogg should explain himself, and quickly.”

But the entire premise of the Redstate article was inaccurate. After publication, Redstate published two “updates” at the top of the story, clarifying that the statements they cited as inconsistent were actually describing two separate events, several hours apart. Hogg was definitely on campus at the time of the shooting, and eventually went home and returned to school that evening to interview his gathered classmates just off campus.

By then, the story was already circulating around the right-wing Internet, shared by those who wanted it to be true.

Update: This story, originally published on March 26th, has been updated to include details of Redstate’s story on David Hogg. The time stamp has also been changed. 

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