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Texas shooting: How false rumours spread that gunman was trans

By Shayan Sardarizadeh & Kayleen Devlin
BBC Monitoring

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People react after a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in UvaldeImage source, Reuters

Minutes after Tuesday's tragic shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, false rumours began spreading about the identity of the gunman.

Images of three separate trans women were shared online purporting to be of the gunman, and leading to a barrage of abuse.

The inaccurate claims were also amplified by US politicians and political influencers, some of whom also more broadly linked transgenderism to violence.

Rumours begin

Almost immediately after the shooting, pictures of the gunman, Salvador Ramos, 18, appeared online.

Ramos didn't have a huge social media footprint - but one photo in particular was widely circulated. Taken from his Instagram and TikTok accounts, it showed him looking into a mirror wearing a dark grey hoodie.

The rumour that he was trans appears to have started on the fringe message board 4chan, and in particular the /pol/ or "Politically Incorrect" board, which has for years been associated with the far-right and mass shootings. A controversial hub of internet subculture, 4chan has been the birthplace of many harassment and trolling campaigns.

Users posted an image of a trans woman who slightly resembled Ramos, along with a link to her Reddit profile, and baselessly claimed she was the gunman.

It didn't take long for the claim to migrate to other, larger social platforms, and it began to be repeated by far-right and right-wing activists and politicians.

Conservative activist Candace Owens claimed there were photos of the gunman "cross-dressing", and claimed this was evidence that "there were plenty of signs that he was mentally disturbed".

Republican congressman Paul Gosar, of Arizona, repeated the trans claim in a tweet that he later deleted. Mr Gosar also called the gunman, who was born in the United States, an "illegal alien", although Texas governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, stated that Ramos was a US citizen.

We contacted Ms Owens, and Mr Gosar's spokesperson, for comment.

Image source, TWITTER
Image caption,
Republican congressman Paul Gosar repeated the false claims in a now deleted tweet

Another congressman, Pete Sessions, claimed in an interview on the Today Programme on Thursday that Ramos "wore dresses".

Sam, the transgender woman targeted by the 4chan campaign, posted on Reddit saying that she didn't live in Texas and was alive after the shooting, even though Ramos was shot dead.

But Sam - not her real name - wasn't the only trans person targeted by false stories. Images of Sabrina, another trans woman, appeared in photo collages alongside the actual photo of the gunman, with similar false claims.

She posted an image of herself holding her phone with the time and date visible to prove she was alive after the shooting. And another trans person's image which also appeared on 4chan later popped up in far-right spaces, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones's Infowars website.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
False rumours were repeated by Alex Jones of Infowars

Common pattern

This is not the first time that trans and other LGBT individuals have been the targets of misinformation, says Mallory Moore, a researcher with the Trans Safety Network, a UK-based organisation.

She says the organisation advised Sabrina on how to put social media safeguards in place following the attack and online abuse - something she described as "pre-emptive".

"As things tend to spiral, people will pick through someone's social media and dump it online," she says. "Getting ahead of that is a sensible precaution."

As often happens after mass shootings, a number of other false rumours spread in the wake of the attack.

BBC News observed at least a dozen fake accounts claiming to belong to the gunman in the aftermath, most of which were attempts to copy his removed, genuine account on Instagram. Most have been removed.