Survivors of shooting endure new assault – from online trolls

Associated Press

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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