Misinformation vs. amplification: A balancing act following the Allen, TX shooting

By: sam doak&
May 17 2023

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Misinformation vs. amplification: A balancing act following the Allen, TX shooting

Source: REUTERS/Shelby Tauber

On May 6, 2023, a mass shooting occurred at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas. Official accounts report that eight people were killed and a further seven wounded. The suspected perpetrator was killed at the scene following a confrontation with responding police officers. As is common after a tragedy of this nature, it did not take long for speculation concerning the motivations of the alleged shooter to take hold on social media. Baseless narratives premised on the ethnic background of the suspect gained traction, with some on the right speculating that they were in the country illegally, or motivated by affiliation to gangs and cartels. 

Interrogating ideology 

In spite of initial speculation, a more grounded picture of the shooter’s background and potential motives began to emerge relatively quickly. Following initial reports that the suspect may have been influenced by adherence to far-right ideology, and the New York Times reporting that mentioned the suspect appeared to have a profile on the Russian social media platform Odnoklassniki, Aric Toler, a researcher at the investigative outlet Bellingcat, was the first to publicly share content found on this profile. 

Displaying identifying documentation that matched the suspect’s personal details, the profile painted a picture of an individual steeped in white supremacist, misogynistic and antisemitic hate. Identifying him as a committed far-right ideologue immediately challenged initial speculative framings of the Allen tragedy, which had been amplified by a wide cast of prominent right-wing social media influencers keen to score political points on culture war issues including crime and immigration. 

Speaking to Logically Facts, Eliot Higgins, founder and Creative Director of Bellingcat, explained why it was important to interrogate the ideological background of the suspect: "In this case in particular it's because there's clear attempts to obscure and lie about the motivations and background of the shooter." Higgins’ colleague Toler provided a similar assessment, pointing out that "there was rampant speculation of his affiliations, ideologies, etc, and his page was unusually direct in answering those questions." 

While the evidence uncovered by Toler directly contradicted the narratives put forward by some on the right, there was little recognition of this among such figures. Instead of backtracking or reframing their conclusions, many doubled down, relying on conspiratorial narratives to disregard the identification of the suspect as a far-right extremist. Weighing in on Twitter, the platform’s owner Elon Musk asked, "Didn't the story come from @bellingcat, which literally specializes in psychological Operations?" He continued, "I don't want to hurt their feelings, but this is either the weirdest story ever or a very bad psyop!" This line of argument was repeated widely in the days that followed, with right-wing influencers drawing on baseless claims concerning the motivations of Bellingcat – which is transparent about its methodologies – and supposed inconsistencies in established narratives to muddy the water.

A particular point of contention centered around details from the suspect’s social media history, suggesting he had admiration for Chaya Raichik (known primarily online under the alias Libs of TikTok) and Tim Pool. With over 3.7 million Twitter followers between them, Raichik and Pool are both popular figures on the right. While neither figures are responsible for his actions, their ideological fellows have been keen to rubbish evidence that connects the suspect to the consumption of more mainstream conservative media. Commenting on the failure of some on the right to accept details relating to the suspect’s politics, Higgins told Logically Facts that "there's really multiple social media ecosystems where it's easy for people to find sites and personalities that reinforce their beliefs, so presenting them with well-researched evidence is pointless as their favorite internet personality will soon tell them its all fake and they shouldn't trust it." Toler was more succinct in his explanation for why right-wing influencers were hostile to his findings, commenting "I think everyone knows the answer to that."

The risks of amplification

As a consequence of the online debates that resulted from the impasse, social media users flocked to the suspect’s Odnoklassniki profile. Twitter was soon awash with images of his swastika tattoo, alongside neo-Nazi memes and other inflammatory content shared by the suspect prior to the shooting. While this was most frequently posted in response to denials of the suspect’s documented far-right ideology, there are real issues with sharing such material in open forums. 

Speaking to Logically Facts, Meili Criezis, a Graduate Fellow at American University’s  Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab and contributor for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, outlined the dangers inherent in resharing such content, commenting that "a lot of extremists, this person included, they are very aware of how the internet works and the things that will catch on in terms of the spreading of content, the spreading of memes, so, of course, they will sprinkle in the most extreme memes they can find, they will say certain catchphrases because they know how the ecosystem works. They understand that when things become public, wider attention will be drawn immediately to the more inflammatory elements."

According to Criezis, this can lead to important details about a perpetrator and their motivations being obscured. "I think it’s how they manipulate us on a larger scale, because they understand what is inflammatory, what will draw us in, what will make everyone rush to go ‘look at this,’ and then also ignore the rest of the written materials, for example", she said. "Then we lose all nuance, we lose the important wider picture." 

Getting the balance right 

Ultimately, it will take time for researchers and journalists to paint a full picture of the suspect, his ideological commitments, and any other factors that could have played a role in the events of May 6. On the necessity of such efforts, Criezis opined, "I think it’s important that researchers, journalists, independent researchers are continuing to analyze these documents and pinpoint the evidence that, yes this individual was far right. It’s important to establish that because of the level of disinformation that started circulating even before they named the individual publicly." 

Beyond this, properly determining the suspect’s motivations is not a process that can be rushed, or one that will unfold in debates on social media platforms. Criezis discussed the research community’s response with Logicallt Facts, saying, "I think it’s crucial that all of us collectively take the time to read everything, to assess all the information that is available publicly, but also in primary source documents, and not really rush to anything," Criezis added, "I get it after a horrific shooting like this there can be the feeling of, ‘oh my gosh we have to  get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible,’ but I think in this case and in previous cases it’s very important that we take our time, that we’re thorough as possible and talk about the nuances."

In an interview with CNBC on May 16, Elon Musk repeated the false claim that there is no evidence connecting the Allen suspect to white supremacy, receiving little pushback. In context, it seems clear that responses to the alleged shooter’s actions have warranted a level of inquiry and public discussion that some may find uncomfortable. A common and often valid response following tragedies of this nature is to refrain from sharing the content and ideologies shared by perpetrators. Amplifying and perpetuating the spread of hateful rhetoric is a hazard inherent to the task of covering such events, and not one that should be disregarded. This consideration is no doubt in the minds of researchers and journalists who approach the tragedy in Allen in good faith, as it should be for those who wish to address it in conversations online. 

While the identity of the alleged shooter has been reported by reputable outlets, Logically Facts has chosen not to name this individual, in line with our editorial policies. 

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before