NEW YORK, New York (AFP) — In the wake of the Florida school shooting, survivors like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez have become faces of the fight for US gun control — and targets for far-right pundits and conspiracy theorists who paint the students as puppets of the political left.
In a polarized climate where the most fervent supporters of US President Donald Trump are quick to cry “fake news,” the students had barely started calling for action to stop mass shootings when wild theories began swirling on the far-right internet.
At the forefront were websites Infowars and The Gateway Pundit — known for relaying bogus theories including the notion that the shooting of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax.
“Evidence mounts Florida attack is a giant false flag,” ran the title of one video on Infowars.
Gateway Pundit lashed out at “string-pullers” it said were manipulating the students, in support of a “vehemently anti-gun, anti-American, and anti-Trump” agenda.
The site mainly implicated organizers of the “Women’s March” — which has voiced support for a student-led gun control march on Washington on March 24.
Hogg, a student journalist and one of the movement’s most visible faces, and Gonzalez, who called out Trump over his links to the National Rifle Association in an impassioned televised address last weekend, have been on the receiving end of particularly fierce attacks.
Infowars alleged the pair were coached by CNN — the cable network regularly assailed by the American right for its supposed liberal bias — interpreting their ease in front of the camera as evidence they were in reality “crisis actors” working on behalf of the far left.
Meanwhile, Hogg’s father’s status as a retired FBI agent — an organization in Trump’s crosshairs over its probe into Russian meddling in his election campaign — served as further conspiracy fodder.
A YouTube video presenting the theory was the site’s most shared footage Tuesday with around 200,000 views — before it was taken down. Similar allegations were circulating on social media under the hashtags #CrisisActors and #ParklandHoax, triggering immediate calls for the accounts to be blocked.
Still, another Parkland survivor, Cameron Kasky, who launched the movement’s rallying cry #NeverAgain, said Wednesday he was suspending his Facebook account after receiving death threats from radical supporters of the National Rifle Association.
Conservative anchor Bill O’Reilly — who was fired by Fox News last year over sexual harassment allegations, but still broadcasts on his website and to his 2.6 million Twitter followers — also questioned the movement’s genesis.
“The national press believes it is their job to destroy the Trump administration by any means necessary. So if the media has to use kids to do that, they’ll use kids,” he wrote on his website Tuesday.
The theories reached the president’s inner circle as president’s son Donald Trump Jr. “liked” two tweets related to Gateway Pundit’s accusations against Hogg, according to the site Trump Alert which tracks the family’s activity on Twitter.
And in Florida, Republican lawmaker Shawn Harrison on Tuesday fired an aide who repeated the crisis actor allegations on his Twitter account.
Harrison said he was “appalled” by the comments.
Questioned by CNN about the accusations, Hogg simply dismissed them as “unbelievable.”
“I am not a crisis actor,” he said.
“I am somebody who had to witness this and live through this and I continue to have to do that.”