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Soon after the Uvalde shooting, conspiracy theories took off among the far right

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well before verifiable information came out regarding the shooter who took 21 lives at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, misinformation, rumors and conspiracy theories were already rampant in some far-right circles of social media. Some of this has come to be standard practice since similar tactics were deployed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a decade ago. But there are some differences this time around.

NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us now. Hi, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So what are some of the threads that you saw emerging even as we are still learning about what happened in Uvalde?

YOUSEF: Well, immediately, we were seeing posts that assumed, without any verifiable evidence, things about the shooter's identity. You know, one of them was a claim that the shooter was undocumented. Well, yesterday, Texas Governor Abbott said that Ramos was a U.S. citizen. Another rumor also was that he's transgender. This appears to be based on some photos pulled from his presumed Instagram account. But again, there's no factual known information to base this on.

I think something that's been particularly concerning about this is that some elected officials - you know, I'm particularly noting Republican Representative Paul Gosar - amplified that line on his Twitter account and then later deleted it after it prompted a backlash. But as the day progressed, we also started to see the conspiracy theories come out.

CHANG: Conspiracy theories like what? What have you been seeing or hearing?

YOUSEF: Well, as with so many of these violent events, including January 6 and the more recent racist shooting in Buffalo, the false flag argument is out there. You're probably well familiar with this by this point, Ailsa, but it claims, without evidence, that the attack was orchestrated by the government as an excuse to curtail gun rights. There's also another conspiracy theory floating out there that says this shooter was part of a secret, illegal CIA operation, where the agency was attempting to brainwash subjects by using LSD or psychological torture. Of course, there's absolutely no evidence for this. And in fact, that program ended back in 1973.

Sara Aniano is an extremism researcher I spoke to. She focuses on the rhetoric of the far-right on social media. And she says it's unlikely these conspiracy theories are going to die down.

SARA ANIANO: This is the worst case scenario. Without a manifesto and a known motive, the speculation is just going to get worse and worse as to what drove the shooter to do it. But it also provides really fertile ground for more conspiracy theories to sort of accumulate and spread in the information ecosystem. The waters are very muddy right now. And even for extremism researchers, we're not entirely sure what to do with the limited information that we have.

CHANG: I mean, we know that these conspiracy theories, they take root during and after tragedies like what we saw yesterday. But I understand that you're seeing something else this time. What's different?

YOUSEF: Well, Ailsa, if we look back at the conspiracy narrative that took hold after the Sandy Hook massacre, it really traced back largely to one person, Alex Jones, of the far-right media platform called Infowars. Well, it took a decade, but the families who were traumatized and hurt by those lies have finally won defamation suits against him. And he's now filing for bankruptcy.

You know, this time around, it's different. We're not yet seeing any similar central figure pushing conspiracy theories around what happened in Texas. Instead, we're seeing these narratives pop up in a much more grassroots fashion. And extremism researchers like Aniano said - you know, they say that these are the real seeds that were planted by Jones 10 years ago and they also reflect a much more widespread paranoia and distrust of federal government that's been taking hold on the right.

CHANG: That is NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you, Odette.

YOUSEF: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.