As the horrors of the worst school shooting in a decade were unfolding on Tuesday afternoon, the far right began immediately spreading disinformation about it.
In what is now a sadly typical cycle of information and disinformation related to mass shootings, the false narratives that circulated in the wake of the horrific massacre in Uvalde, Texas, were designed not only to confuse but also to deflect blame from America’s gun laws and onto the far-right’s favorite targets.
The shooter was a “transexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos” tweeted far-right Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, citing a bogus conspiracy theory dreamed up by trolls in the worst parts of the internet.
“I’m not even surprised that Republicans are spreading a false claim that the shooter in Texas is trans,” Cassandra Roxborough, a journalist who covers transgender rights, tweeted on Wednesday morning. “It tracks with their policies which vilify and harm trans people in the USA. The problem is never gun safety—it’s always something else.”
Gosar’s source for his bogus claim was 4chan, where trolls had grabbed random images of a transgender artist from their Reddit account and claimed they were photos of the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter. The images show a trans woman in a red, long-sleeved Coca-Cola shirt and black miniskirt, which the trolls claimed was the shooter, identified by law enforcement officials as Uvalde resident Salvador Ramos.
One post on 4chan discussing the campaign to boost these lies admitted that Ramos was not trans, but that “this was good optics,” adding: “Let’s just call every one of these school shooters trannies. No glory for degenerate losers.”
The images quickly made their way from 4chan to extremist platforms like Telegram and Gab, before moving to mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where the disinformation was boosted by accounts like Gosar’s.
Despite Twitter users immediately flagging Gosar’s mistake, the Congressman–who’s known for attending white nationalist conferences alongside people who marched at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally–took over two hours to delete his tweet.
The trans woman whose images were being shared posted a message on Reddit on Tuesday night titled, “It’s not me, I don’t even live in Texas.”
“They are my pics,” she wrote. “People are using [them] to make trans people look like murderers and blaming me for the shooting.”
Many of the tweets and Facebook posts sharing the pictures of the woman and claiming she was the shooter have now been removed, though VICE News was still able to find many posts spreading the disinformation on Wednesday morning.
But the transphobic misinformation is likely to continue. On Wednesday morning, VICE News reviewed several posts from members of the /pol/ board on 4chan where they were already circulating another image of a transgender woman and claiming, without evidence, that it was Ramos.
The decision to use the shooting as an opportunity to spread transphobic content is even more disturbing given the rise in violent attacks against transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. Human Rights Campaign reported that a record 50 members of this community were fatally attacked in 2021, and so far in 2022 there have been 14 such fatalities.
The rise in attacks coincides with attacks on trans rights in many parts of the country, including Texas, which has authorized its department of Family and Protective Services to investigate the parents of transgender children, and has introduced legislation restricting what sports trans men and women can take part in.
Disinformation about the shooter’s gender identity was just one aspect of the false narratives being spread online following the attack.
Because of Uvalde’s proximity to the Mexico border, many on the right began circulating the baseless accusation that the shooter was an illegal immigrant.
Josh Barrett, a GOP candidate for Congress in Arizona who has in the past voiced support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, responded to a tweet about the shooting on Tuesday by asking: “Was he here legally?”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had already confirmed that Ramos was a U.S. citizen.
Adding to the confusion is the now-typical practice of trolls creating fake accounts in the shooter’s name, using the same profile picture as the shooter to try to spread even more disinformation.
In this case, dozens of virtually identical Instagram accounts popped up within minutes of the gunman’s name being released.
The 18-year-old, who was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent during the shooting on Tuesday, perpetrated the worst school shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago.
Ramos shot and killed at least 21 people, including 19 elementary school students and two fourth-grade teachers. He also reportedly shot his grandmother before he drove to the school, though her condition is unknown.
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