The Las Vegas shooting began at 10:08 pm Pacific Standard Time. Many were asleep during the horrifying crime, and awoke to the facts — 59 dead, 500 wounded, and killer deceased. But one group of people who weren’t emergency responders was awake and hard at work during the shooting and in the hours immediately after — internet conspiracy theorists, quickly distributing false information and accusing an innocent man of mass murder.
Immediately after the shooting made news, brand-new Twitter accounts started tweeting false missing persons statements. Twitter user Caroline O., @rvawonk, kept a running thread throughout the night debunking them. Many of the tweets claimed to have loved ones missing at Mandalay Bay, but the photo of the loved one, as well as the account’s profile photo, was fake. Many of these tweets had gotten hundreds or thousands of retweets from well-meaning Twitter users. One account used a photo of porn actor Johnny Sins, a photo Caroline O. pointed out was also used in fake tweets during the Manchester attack.
Before any information was known about the shooter or any people of interest connected to him, accounts claimed the shooter was Muslim. A popular meme circulated accusing “Islam Convert Samir Al-Hajeed,” though the photo in question was actually of alt-right comedian Sam Hyde. A look at these accounts shows new accounts created this summer, populated with gaming and pro-Trump tweets. Disinformation attacks use both bots and real people — bots to quickly disseminate the information, and real people whose innate biases leave them open to believing and spreading the false information. Both types of accounts spread the “Samir Al-Hajeed” hoax.
Soon after the shooting was over, the Las Vegas Police Department released the name of a person of interest who they believed to be the shooter’s companion — an Asian woman named Marilou Danley. With this name, the most in-depth and most disturbing hoax began to take shape. Internet sleuths on Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan’s /pol (4chan is a site popular with gamers and the alt-right), started digging into the internet presence of anyone named Marilou Danley.
A Facebook page for an Asian woman named Marilou Danley had a Facebook friend named Geary Danley. A post from 2011 said they were married. Geary Danley liked many liberal/left-leaning interests on Facebook, including Organizing for Action, Thank You Obama, and the Rachel Maddow Show. Trolls who were desperate to connect the Mandalay Bay shooting to their political foe, the American left, had their scapegoat. Twitter started circulating photos of Geary, a child, and a woman who they claimed to be Marilou. At this time, the Las Vegas Police Department had released a photo of Marilou and her birthdate. The woman in the photo with Geary and the child was much younger — in her 30s or 40s. Despite the obvious impossibility that this woman could be Marilou, this photo was spread around labeled as “Geary and Marilou.”
These far-right internet sleuths quickly set up pages on Everipedia, an easily editable wiki, for Geary and Marilou. Geary’s Everipedia started with his political views, and then accused him of the shooting, in clear words: “Geary opened fired on the 34th floor of the Mandalay Bay toward a concert happening across the street. Police stormed his room and shot him.” Pro-Trump accounts on Twitter started circulating the Everipedia page. One account named Trump Nation (started in October 2017) shared a screenshot of the page stating, “Shooter was a liberal targeting Trump supporters.”
An account called Dailey Alt News said, “What we know about Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas shooter Geary Danley – Left Wing Progressive, Registered Democrat, Rachel Maddow Fan, Anti-Trump.” Various accounts said he was associated with BLM and antifa. The narrative is clear — pro-Trump accounts wanted to blame the Mandalay Bay shooting on a Democrat, and they were willing to accuse an innocent man to do so. They circulated photos of a woman who was not Marilou Danley, as well as photos of a child – all without any sort of blurring or obscuring of identifying information. I don’t know if Geary Danley and his family, including the child in the photos, received death threats. It certainly seems likely.
While a combination of troll accounts and real Trump supporters circulated the Geary Danley conspiracy theory as fact on Twitter, the accusation spread into supposedly more legitimate corners of the internet. The 4chan thread accusing Geary Danley was a “top story” result on Google for several queries related to the shooting. The Everipedia pages for Geary and Marilou were top results when you searched “Marilou Danley” on Facebook, as many people inevitably did after her name was released by LVPD. The Gateway Pundit, a rightwing blog, published an article accusing Geary, saying, “Geary Danley, the murderer of at least 20 concertgoers in Las Vegas, from initial accounts was a far left loon. Per a review of his Facebook account he was a fan of Rachel Maddow, People’s Action, Democrats, MoveOn.org, etc…”
Nowhere in the post do they clarify that Geary is merely a Facebook friend of someone named Marilou Danley who may or may not be the Marilou Danley in question, and that Marilou’s involvement is entirely unknown, save the fact that the police were looking for her. No. It says Geary is the murderer. It accuses an innocent man, based off of nothing but a Facebook friendship, of being a mass murderer. A year ago, it may have been easy to write off Gateway Pundit as merely a blog.
But Gateway Pundit now has White House access, thanks to Donald Trump. Gateway Pundit gets into White House press briefings when the New York Times doesn’t. Gateway Pundit is a White-House-approved “news” site, and they accused an innocent man of mass murder based off conjecture by trolls on 4chan. The post was soon taken down, after the identification of the real shooter. If the shooter had not been identified, the hoax may have continued for much longer, and damaged an innocent man’s life even further.
It’s not enough to write off what happened as trolling. There was a combined effort between bot accounts, for which we have no idea who paid, and real-life Trump supporters, right-wing bloggers, and members of the President’s circle of political allies, to spread false information and try to blame the worst mass shooting in modern history on either a Muslim or a Democrat. I witnessed this mass disinformation attack happening in real time, in front of my eyes, at the same time as people were bleeding and dying on the streets of Las Vegas. Someone is paying for those bots, and we don’t know who.
There is strong reason to believe it’s a continuation of the disinformation attacks perpetrated during the election, which were a joint effort between Russian networks and American Trump supporters. There are a lot of people deeply invested in misleading the American people and making us afraid of Black Lives Matter, antifa, Muslims, and progressive activists. There is no greater “politicization” of tragedy than to falsely accuse an innocent person while victims are still dying, in order to blame your political rivals for unspeakable crimes. The American people were attacked twice on Sunday night. We still don’t know why Stephen Paddock took innocent lives, and we still don’t know who is responsible for blaming an innocent man for Paddock’s crimes.
Photo: Governor Tom Wolf/Creative Commons