A Republican state legislator from Pennsylvania is among those getting heat for spreading baseless internet chatter attacking Florida high school students who survived last week's mass shooting.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) registered his opinion Wednesday morning on social media about the teenagers who survived a deadly massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and have become outspoken advocates angry at politicians for their inaction in the wake of mass shootings.
"This morning I was working out and listening to the news about 'students' being bused in to the Florida Capitol," Metcalfe wrote on Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday morning, echoing false statements from right-wing corners of the internet suggesting that the teenagers weren't really students, but rather paid actors or plants placed by liberals hoping to push Republicans on gun-control issues.
Metcalfe, who has a history of extreme comments and most recently was criticized after antigay statements he made to a fellow legislator went viral, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"While Rep. Metcalfe's unbecoming behavior is nothing new to Pennsylvanians, attacking the survivors of a school shooting and implying they are actors represents an obscene new low," said Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesman Max Steele.
As with other tragedies involving mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sandy Hook, disinformation and conspiracy theories move fast, jumping quickly from right-wing conspiracy websites onto social-media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, before eventually surfacing on major media networks. Eventually, elected politicians like Metcalfe and their staffers sometimes end up parroting the lines.
On Tuesday, Benjamin Kelly, a legislative aide to Florida State Rep. Shawn Harrison, was fired after he told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that the teenagers who appeared on CNN following the shooting were paid crisis actors.
"Both kids [in the interview] are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen," Kelly emailed. When asked to support his claim, Kelly sent a link to a conspiracy-theory video posted on YouTube featuring David Hogg, one of the students.
Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman and paid contributor at CNN, floated a baseless conspiracy theory that the students advocating for gun control had been hijacked by left-wing groups, going so far as to claim they were being funded by liberal financier George Soros.
"Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?" Kingston asked on Tuesday's New Day.
"Jack, I'm sorry, I have to correct you," interjected host Alisyn Camerota. "I was down there. I talked to these kids. These kids were … these kids were wildly motivated. I talked to these kids before they knew the body count of how many of their friends had been killed."
Hogg, a teenage student and a survivor of the Parkland shooting, has been the target of repeated conspiracy theories since he began speaking out about the need for politicians to push for changes to prevent more mass shootings.
Several of the conspiracy theorists cited the fact that Hogg was interviewed by a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles last year as evidence he is a paid crisis actor. But Hogg posted on Twitter last August he was visiting Los Angeles, and made a video shared on his personal YouTube page explaining the altercation with a lifeguard on Redondo Beach that led to the news report.
Gateway Pundit, a right-wing conspiracy theory site that has received White House press credentials from the Trump administration, claimed in one post that it was a "red flag" that Hogg was an anti-Trump plant because his father, Kevin, happened to be a retired FBI agent. In another post, the site accused Hogg of "not remembering his lines" in a video of the student stumbling over his words that has since been removed from YouTube, but not before amassing more than 100,000 views.
Among the prominent conservative voices sharing Gateway Pundit's conspiracy theories were Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, who was roundly criticized by media pundits for liking a pair of tweets suggesting Hogg was being used as a pawn by the FBI as part of an anti-Trump agenda.
"I think it's a form of pollution, just like the kind-of smoke that comes out of the factory. It poisons the environment for all of us," CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter said Wednesday. "The people that live closest to the factory and consume all of the pollution, they suffer the most. But our society as a whole suffers when these outlandish, sick theories are spread."
By Tuesday night, Gateway Pundit was already promoting a new baseless conspiracy that survivors of the shooting were "theater-trained" and willing to workshop anti-Trump and antigun lines for the media, all while being funded by organizations linked to Soros. As of Wednesday morning, the post had been shared more than 2,300 times across Facebook and Twitter, according to data provided by CrowdTangle.
Gateway Pundit also pushed several false stories following a recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, including misidentifying the shooter as "a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army."
On CNN on Wednesday, Rachel Catania, one of Hogg's classmates and another survivor of the shooting, responded directly to claims that she was either acting or being pushed by liberal lawmakers to appear on television to make pro-gun-control statements.
"I'm not getting paid for this. I want to come out here on behalf of my city and my town and just spread the message on behalf of those who can't," Catania told CNN host John Berman. "And I'm going to make sure that those 17 innocent people who had their lives taken from them did not die for no reason."
"No one's paying me to do this," Catania continued. "I'm not a crisis actor. I'm not even sure those are real. No, they're not real."