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Conspiracy theories about Florida school shooting survivors have gone mainstream

Conspiracy theories about Florida school shooting survivors have gone mainstream
Videos promoting conspiracy theories about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors have flourished on social media platforms. (YouTube)

In a world of senseless chaos and cruelty, there are apparently two ways to comprehend what's driving the student-led gun control activism spreading across the country:

1. After a gunman killed 17 students and faculty at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last week, the students have launched a movement that began in their liberal enclave and snowballed on social media across a generation fed up with mass shootings.

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Or:

2. The angry young people giving interviews on national television are not students at all but "crisis actors" who travel from tragedy to tragedy and pretend to be victims, and the students have not organized the protests on their own but are agents of Democratic donor George Soros, the liberal media or the anti-Trump FBI.

If you were waiting for a bottom to America's fake-news madness, it very well may have arrived.

Over the last week, right-wing news outlets and social media users have started circulating elaborate conspiracy theories about students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have raised their voices and taken over the political debate on gun control.

In a way it was predictable. The last two years of the nation's political discourse have often been driven by powerful forces of paranoia that have warped public debate and undermined prominent political figures.

But this time, those prominent political figures happen to be teenagers.

One Facebook user found a video of shooting survivor David Hogg, one of the most prominent voices calling for gun control, giving an interview to CBS2 in Los Angeles in August 2017.

"So Called 'Student,' But actually a CRISIS ACTOR, David Hogg, was on camera months ago, pretending to be a high school student in California," the user wrote. "Now, suddenly, he is a high school student in Florida???"

The post was shared more than 100,000 times.

No matter that in a follow-up story this week, the CBS2 reporter explained that she had interviewed him because he had been visiting family and friends in Los Angeles and happened to record a confrontation between one of his friends and a lifeguard at Redondo Beach.

"I'm not a crisis actor," Hogg said in an interview on CNN. "I'm someone who had to witness this and live through this, and I continue to be having to do that."

The conspiracy claim was especially disturbing for Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from Torrance who knows Hogg's mother — who has been a teacher in Torrance — and whose family knows Hogg himself.

"He is definitely not a 'crisis actor,' " Lieu said. "He is a student who is trying to explain to America what he witnessed in that horrific mass shooting."

Lieu said he was appalled by the attacks on the students, and yet unsurprised.

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"They've been quite effective, I believe, in media, articulating a message that some people find threatening, which is that we need reasonable gun safety measures," Lieu said.

Of course, such comments, especially from a Democrat, only fuel the conspiracy theories about the students.

Facebook said Wednesday it would take down posts that "attack the victims of last week's tragedy in Florida," which the company's head of content policy, Mary deBree, called "abhorrent."

A similar policy was enacted by YouTube, where at one point eight of the top 10 results for searches for "David Hogg" were conspiracy videos, and its top-trending video was from a user who called Hogg "DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR."

"This video should never have appeared" in the site's trending section, YouTube said in a statement, explaining that the video was "misclassified" by an algorithm because it contained footage from CBS2, "an authoritative news source." "We are working to improve our systems moving forward."

But social media hasn't been the only place where the conspiracy theories have been propagated.

Gateway Pundit, a right-wing site with credentials to cover the White House, criticized Hogg for being the son of a retired FBI special agent, suggesting that his attacks on the Trump administration were retaliation for the administration's attacks on the agency.

The president's son Donald Trump Jr. "liked" a similar post on Twitter attacking Hogg for his FBI connection.

"Now, I don't want to call them 'crisis actors' ..." Gateway Pundit's White House correspondent, Lucian Wintrich, tweeted. "But they are all trained actors who were recruited by Soros-linked organizations as spokespeople after a crisis."

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who was once tapped for a post in the Trump administration's Homeland Security Department, tweeted that "the well ORGANIZED effort by Florida school students demanding gun control has GEORGE SOROS' FINGERPRINTS all over it."

Yet in a wide-open media environment, the teens aren't defenseless.

Instead, as digital natives who have grown up with social media, they are in their element, and they have responded to the conspiracy attacks with irony and panache.

When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked student Cameron Kasky what he would say to the conspiracy theorists making allegations against him, Kasky replied: "Well, if you had seen me in our school's production of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' you would know that nobody would pay me to act, for anything."

The response caught Blitzer speechless for a moment. " 'Fiddler on the Roof' is a great — who did you play in 'Fiddler on the Roof?' "

On Twitter, Kasky also rallied to Hogg's defense.

Hogg "is smart, funny and diligent," Kasky wrote, "but my favorite thing about him is undoubtedly that he's actually a 26-year-old felon from California."

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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