The National Rifle Association’s Twitter account used to go silent for days after a mass shooting. Not so much in 2018. A day after 10 people died in Santa Fe, Tex., @NRA tweeted Saturday to celebrate Armed Forces Day. By Sunday, the organization’s incoming president was on Fox News, blaming the shooting on a “culture of violence” and Ritalin. The NRA’s main account tweeted a segment of that interview.
NRA TV, the more confrontational id of the NRA, was also active. In the days after the shooting in February in Parkland, Fla., the network was muted on Twitter but aggressive on air. After Santa Fe, it was aggressive everywhere.
There’s an online routine that unfolds after a mass shooting: There are the first reports, the spread of rumors, the fake accounts, the hoaxes targeting those searching for information and, reliably, the accusation that someone is making the tragedy “political” too soon. The aftermath of the Parkland shooting seemed to eliminate that last part of the cycle. #ThoughtsandPrayers trended on Twitter almost immediately, but as a mocking meme targeting public figures and politicians who would offer thoughts and prayers but not solutions in the wake of another school shooting. Crucially, the people who stepped forward with the loudest voices to talk about gun control after Parkland were a group of students who survived the massacre.
The pro-Trump Internet took a while to figure out how to respond to these viral students, who had a way of making their adversaries look foolish and slow. At one point, Infowars viewers watched Alex Jones shuffle through stacks of paper on his desk, searching for a printout of a tweet in which Parkland student David Hogg made fun of Jones’s supplement business. The far-right Internet thrives on agility and knowledge of how online attention works. But the teens were better.
For Santa Fe, the people who were outpaced by the teens in Parkland seemed to be more prepared.
The Gateway Pundit zeroed in on reports that teachers “made fun” of the shooting suspect, embedding a tweet saying that “
#GunControlNow might need to be #PublicSectorUnionControlNow.” Scott Adams, the “Dilbert” creator who has since become a popular Galaxy Brain Internet personality, said that he believed violent video games and entertainment made mass shootings “probably … 10 percent more likely” in a live stream that has been watched 22,000 times. Laura Loomer, a conspiracy Internet mainstay, tweeted an image of the Drudge Report’s homepage, which said that the suspect was “bullied” in school. She wrote: “People like to talk about gun control, but what about bully control?”
Infowars’s Owen Shroyer was still on his way to the Texas town when he started talking about guns and the mainstream media on a live stream. That alone isn’t unusual for Infowars: Roger Stone told viewers during the website’s coverage of Parkland — as the massacre was still unfolding — that the shooting would be “hyped tomorrow” as “an excuse to take away our firearms.” In this case, however, Santa Fe was within reach of Infowars’s Texas headquarters, so Shroyer was on a mission to get to the site of the shooting by the end of the day.
“They know it’s a sensitive topic,” Shroyer said of the media as Infowars broadcast his drive to Santa Fe. “And they can use the negative emotion of a school shooting, of the death that comes with it, and then use that to virtue-signal and grab you and grab your consciousness and direct whatever anger or emotion you have towards their enemy. Which is the NRA, which is conservatives, which is gun owners. So that’s what they do, and that’s probably what they’re gonna do for this one as well.”
Jones’s Twitter account promised — and then partially walked back — an Infowars news conference at the site of the shooting on Friday evening, just hours after 10 people died there. Instead, Shroyer live-streamed interviews with attendees of the vigil for its victims.
Two parents of a student survivor stood at the edge of the vigil. The man wore a leather jacket and a Harley Davidson shirt. Shroyer asked the father what he thought could stop future shootings like this from happening.
“Arm our teachers. Educate our children on gun safety, arm everybody,” the parent said.
Another parent said that they didn’t “think there is an easy fix for it.”
And another said the school “just needs a few more things safety-wise for the doors.”
Santa Fe is not Parkland. The Texas community was already preparing in its own way to attempt to prevent a tragedy like this one. There were two armed guards patrolling the school, an active-shooter plan and preparations by the school district to allow some teachers to carry firearms. As my colleagues reported, many in Santa Fe blamed moral issues, such as a lack of religion in schools, for the shooting, and did not turn to gun control as a rallying cry. The guns themselves were different, too: The suspect allegedly used his father’s pistol and shotgun. This was a case where the availability of assault rifles and similar regulations had a less direct connection to the crime.
But for Infowars, the interviews in Santa Fe were more than a reflection of one community’s response to a mass shooting there. They became evidence that the response after Parkland was not to be trusted — echoing Infowars’s previous suggestions that students like Hogg had been scripted or coached to push a liberal political agenda.
“We’ve heard some good points that you don’t hear normally,” Shoyer said at one point, speaking to the camera just before the vigil began. “You really just don’t get that [elsewhere] because it doesn’t fit anybody’s agenda; it doesn’t fit anybody’s narrative.”