Shooting survivors endure new assault - from online trolls

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez comforts a classmate during a CNN town hall meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center, in Sunrise, Fla. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Published:
Updated:

One student was teased about being a "brown, bald lesbian." Another was the target of conspiracy theorists who claimed he was really an actor. When a group of teens posed for a photo, they were accused of lapping up attention from the news cameras and "partying like rock stars."

Just days after watching their classmates die, survivors of the Florida school shooting came under a different kind of assault, this time from online trolls who threatened the students as they seek tighter gun laws.

In the face of such attacks, the students have been undeterred, confronting the trolls head-on in television interviews and on social media.

"They see us as a threat. And honestly, that's kind of entertaining to me. And I love it because it means what we are doing is working. We are changing the world," student David Hogg told MSNBC on Wednesday at a rally outside the Florida Capitol.

Some conservatives have suggested that the teens are being used as political pawns, but the most vicious of the trolls go well beyond that, into personal attacks and baseless accusations.

Hogg was the subject of perhaps the most outlandish conspiracy to surface since the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High that killed 17 people. He was accused of being an actor who was never at the school.

The theory gained momentum in part because Hogg was interviewed by a news reporter last year while on vacation in California. During the trip, he was a witness to a friend's confrontation with a lifeguard. President Donald Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., liked a tweet linking to a story suggesting Hogg was not a survivor of the attack.

But Hogg is no actor. He recorded a harrowing video of terrified students huddled in a darkened room on the day of the shooting. His classmates responded to the trolls with biting sarcasm.

Hogg "is smart, funny, and diligent, but my favorite thing about him is undoubtedly that he's actually a 26-year-old felon from California," tweeted classmate Cameron Kasky. Another troll had cast Hogg as a 26-year-old man who was arrested for drugs in South Carolina.

Others latched on to Hogg's comment that his dad previously worked for the FBI as a means to discredit him. The FBI has acknowledged that agents received a tip about suspect Nikolas Cruz but failed to investigate it.

The students who endured trolling also include Emma Gonzalez, whose short haircut and skin color drew derision, and Kasky, who complained on Twitter about receiving graphic death threats on Facebook.

Critics also assailed the students for the photos that were taken with a CBS reporter. Trolls compared the images to promotional portraits and said the smiling teens were "laughing uproariously."

Hoax claims and online vitriol have long plagued the survivors of mass shootings and families of the dead. But many of the Stoneman Douglas students faced a new layer of scrutiny after they pivoted from survivors to gun-control activists.

University of Maryland professor Danielle Citron, who studies online harassment, said such internet mobs are meant "to silence and to intimidate" and to "shut down a social movement in its tracks." But Citron said the younger generation, who are steeped in social media, can be resilient.

These young people have grown up with social media and are familiar with its vitriol, as well as its power.

"My Twitter following has tripled over the past day," Hogg told MSNBC. "I think that's in part because of these trolls. So for that, I'm honestly kind of thankful."

University of Illinois at Chicago communications professor Steve Jones said conventional advice is not to engage with trolls. But he said he would not presume to tell the students what to do, especially after what they witnessed.

"They've been through one of the most horrible things imaginable and whatever they're doing in response to it is itself an act of bravery," said Jones, who studies online behavior.

Piero Guerra, a 16-year-old junior, who considered himself a gun-rights supporter before the shooting, said he can understand why some people are angry with the students' efforts.

"But my main goal is that they see our perspective as well," Guerra said. "It's kind of hard to tell people to be respectful on the internet because it's never going to happen."

YouTube removed a trending conspiracy video titled "David Hogg Can't Remember His Lines," which showed Hogg stopping to collect his thoughts and repeating answers to questions about the shooting, but many similar videos are still available.

YouTube said in a statement that hoax videos targeting families involved in major tragedies violate its harassment policy and will be removed.

Hogg's mom, Rebecca Boldrick, said the online harassment has scared her son, but also made him more determined. Her 14-year-old daughter also survived the shooting.

"I've always said to (my children), 'You have to be the change you want to see in the world,'" she said.

Lenny Pozner, whose 6-year-old son died in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, has sought to debunk conspiracy theories claiming mass shootings were staged by the government as part of an anti-gun agenda. He is still harassed online, more than five years later.

Pozner said he's now advocating for laws that would treat victims of mass-casualty events as a protected class "so that this kind of targeting would be considered hate speech and a crime."

"But I'm glad people are not still deluding themselves with saying, 'Just ignore the trolls and they'll go away.' Because they have not gone away," Pozner said. "The trolls just get bigger and faster."

Filed under: