Having survived the shooting of his classmates, Douglas High School student David Hogg has since been the subject of a firehose of conspiracy theories calling him an actor from Los Angeles, a stooge of his FBI-linked father, and a plant paid by George Soros.
Now comes a new accusation against Hogg: that he wasn’t even at school the day of the shooting, but instead rode his bike there afterwards, shooting footage and pretending like he’d survived the incident. Naturally, if Hogg didn’t actually survive the shooting, his activism would be a sham, and his instant celebrity would quickly fade.
This is a perfect example of the life cycle of an internet conspiracy theory. It illustrates how they come into being, how they spread so fast, and why they burn out just as quickly.
As with almost all conspiracy theories, the “David Hogg wasn’t at school” accusation started with something real. In fact, it was a quote from David Hogg himself.
On Saturday, CBS ran a special about how the Douglas High School survivors almost instantly transformed from regular teens to high-profile activists. As part of the documentary, Hogg was interviewed about his actions the day of the shooting. One clip that surfaced seemed to contradict his initial claims, as he said:
On the day of the shooting, I got my camera and got on my bike and road as fast as I could three miles from my house to the school to get as much video and to get as many interviews as I could because I knew that this could not be another mass shooting.
Devoid of context, it does indeed seem like Hogg is admitting that he wasn’t at school that day, and only got involved in documenting the carnage long after it took place.
Of course, the snippet wasn’t devoid of context, but just part of a much larger interview. Beyond that, Hogg never claimed that he wasn’t at school, only that he returned to school after he’d gone home. Hogg’s “gotcha” quote is entirely consistent with everything he’s said up until now, as well as with interviews by other survivors.
But to some, a juicy tidbit of a supposed “survivor” “accidentally” dropping his “cover story” was a massive opportunity. So a bunch of conservative clogosphere sites, what RationalWiki calls “the loose-knit internet community of cranks, quacks and wingnuts” who push conspiracy theories,” swung into action.
“News” sites like “Big League Politics,” “The Right Scoop,” “True Pundit,” and “Silence is Consent,” and others breathlessly posted the “shock” “bombshell” that Hogg had admitted he was nowhere near Douglas High when the shooting started.
Of course, that’s not at all what Hogg did. But now planted, the seed of conspiracy spread from the clogosphere to online conspiracy groups like #QAnon, whose members declared the whole coverup was falling apart.
Then it jumped to Facebook. Having found itself totally unable to stop the virulent dissemination of fake news, Facebook instead served as fertilizer. Several well-known right wing groups grabbed the story and fired it out to hundreds of thousands of followers. According to Motherboard, one clogosphere piece racked up over 100,000 interactions, and was shared by groups with a million followers between them.
Next up, more mainstream right wing news sites played their role. Conservative news source Red State got the most play with their take on the conspiracy, with a now-massively re-written story called “New Video Casts Doubt on What David Hogg Was Doing On the Day of The Shooting.”
Posted Monday night, the Red State story was shared by Red State founder and conservative “thought leader” Erick Erickson, who tweeted it to his nearly 200k followers with a note about its veracity.
But it had none, and was quickly retracted by the Red State writer who posted it. Though even then, you can’t take the conspiracy out of the conservative, and rather than simply delete the post, she made multiple additions to it, demanded Hogg “clarify” his statement, called the video “confusing,” and struck through the original piece. For his part, Erickson deleted his tweet, then spent the better part of the next day congratulating himself for his discretion.
At this point, the hoax has been completely debunked. A few clogosphere sites made a note that they’d been hoodwinked by an out-of-context snippet, but most didn’t. And it wouldn’t matter if they did. No one story means more or less than any other, and all are as disposable as paper cups. These sites exist for no other reason than to generate traffic by spamming out insane rumors and hoping they move up the conspiracy food chain.
Most don’t. But this one did. And it will be out there forever. Years from now, some poor soul too young to remember the Parkland shooting will search for information about David Hogg, and likely find some story accusing him of being a liar who wasn’t even there that day.
Chances are, they won’t search for a debunking.