It’s all about a doctored screenshot and unverified tweets.
Officials work the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Eric Gay / AP
A gunman entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, killing 26 people and leaving dozens of other injured. As information about the shooting was coming in, not much was immediately known about the suspect, who authorities later identified as 26-year-old Devin P. Kelley.
On Monday, authorities said the shooting was the result of a “domestic situation,” and that the shooter had sent “threatening texts” to his mother-in-law, who attended the church where the shooting took place.
But by the time news of the actual motivations of the shooter were shared by authorities, a false narrative had already taken hold thanks to right-wing commentators, websites, YouTubers, and other sources. With no evidence to back up their claims, they peddled a conspiracy that Kelley was affiliated with “antifa.” Here's how it spread.
Hours after the shooting, an old tweet about “antifa,” anti-fascists, sent by pro-Trump commentator Jack Posobiec, a frequent source of misinformation, began circulating again. His tweet was sent before the shooting and contains an alleged text message exchange between antifa members and supporters.
Posobiec didn't provide any proof that the screenshot is authentic, but it began recirculating after the shooting occurred.
At the same time, other pro-Trump commentators began openly speculating that the shooter was connected to the anti-fascist group.
Cernovich, who previously helped pedal conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate,” was retweeted more than 2,500 times despite having no proof to back his claim up. At that point, few details about the attack were known and authorities hadn't released the name of the suspect, or his possible motive.
Alex Jones also labeled him an “antifa killer.” Again, there was no evidence then or now to back up this claim.
Google also gave the false conspiracy a boost. Searches for the name “Devin Patrick Kelley” brought up false tweets about him being affiliated with the anti-fascist group.
One tweet, displayed at the top of the Google search results page, called him an “Alt-left terrorist.”
Google told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the results are based on their internal algorithm, not Twitter's search function.
“The search results appearing from Twitter, which surface based on our ranking algorithms, are changing second by second and represent a dynamic conversation that is going on in near real-time,” Google said. “We’ll continue to look at ways to improve how we rank tweets that appear in search.”
This is not the first time the search engine helped boost misinformation. During the Las Vegas shooting, a thread from 4Chan made it into Google's top stories.
One of the first websites to write about the false narrative was YourNewsWire.com, which is known to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation.
The article went so far as to publish a fake account of what happened in the church, citing an unverified screenshot of a text message. The post has over 240,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, and was shared more than 8,600 times on Twitter, according to social sharing tracking tool BuzzSumo.
It falsely claimed the shooter was carrying an “antifa” flag and said “this was a communist revolution.” At the time it was published, no other outlets reported the same details, which turned out to be completely fabricated.
To illustrate the post, YourNewsWire included an image of a Facebook profile for the shooter with an antifascist flag photoshopped in. This screenshot has since been shared to other social media, but it's not real.
The Facebook page “Antifa United,” which regularly posts news about the group and runs an online store, said the image of the flag was taken from its shop. It's also one of the first photos when searching for “antifa flag” on Google Images. An archive from January shows the image in the online store.
The false conspiracy also hit the mainstream media. One outlet that picked it up was Newsweek, which didn’t refute the misinformation in the headline.
Although Newsweek's article focused on why the conspiracy is false, the headline didn't reflect the content.
RT, the Russian news outlet funded by the Kremlin, also gave the false conspiracy a boost.
RT's post about the suspect initially included mention of the anti fascist banner, according to the edit history of the Facebook post. It took five hours for RT to remove the misinformation. “RT previously posted unverified information to FB as part of our Texas shooting news breaking. This was an editorial mistake and has been deleted,” RT said in the comments.
The false claim of an “antifa” connection also took off on YouTube. Searching for the name of the shooter with the word “antifa” brings up videos with thousands of views that push the false narrative.
The misinformation also continues to gain traction on conservative websites, with thousands sharing, liking, and commenting on the articles.