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Within 15 hours, two mass shootings took place in two American cities, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 people.
Around 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 3, a gunman opened fire in a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 and injuring at least 26. Just after 1 a.m. on Aug. 4, a gunman shot and killed nine people in a Dayton, Ohio, entertainment district, injuring 32 more.
The shootings, the first of which is being investigated as domestic terrorism by the FBI, inspired swift condemnation from politicians of both parties and, unfortunately, a flurry of online misinformation.
In the hours after the shootings, hoaxes and rumors started spreading on platforms like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. Some users said police had thwarted shooting attempts in other cities, while others claimed — without evidence — that the killings were a "false flag" operation planned by leftists and the media.
Below is a roundup of the top social media hoaxes we’ve investigated so far. Have a tip you want us to check out? Email [email protected].
False rumor began circulating after the El Paso shooting that President Donald Trump had scrubbed his Twitter archive of tweets that mention migrant invasions.
The implication was that the administration sought to cover up evidence that Trump’s rhetoric had inspired the shooting. Authorities are investigating a manifesto posted online before the shooting that used the words "invasion" or "invaders" seven times. (The shooter also said his opinions "predate Trump and his campaign for president.")
One prominent Twitter user who promoted the false deletion claim was Holly Figueroa O'Reilly (@AynRandPaulRyan), founder of the pro-Democrat crowdsourcing platform Blue Wave Crowdsource. Her claim was repeated on Facebook, including by the Nashville-based group Jam City Antifa.
"Trump just deleted all of these tweets that called immigrants ‘invaders,’ " O'Reilly wrote in a since-deleted tweet.
O'Reilly shared screenshots of several Trump tweets that she claimed had been deleted. But contrary to O'Reilly’s claim, those Trump tweets are still live. (O'Reilly has since recanted her claim and apologized for the error.)
Several Facebook posts claim that the shootings were staged by Democrats to push an anti-gun agenda ahead of the 2020 presidential election. We rate them Pants on Fire!
"TWO mass-shootings over the weekend. Both are a 'paid for' effort by the former deep-state leftist regime," one post claims.
One Facebook user published a photo of the Dayton suspect alongside the alleged gunman in a shooting at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., last weekend, which left three dead. We found similar side-by-side comparisons on Reddit.
"DEEP STATE RECYCLES SHOOTERS," the user claimed in the post.
One photo comes from a story in The Daily Mail about Santino William Legan, 19, whom authorities have named as the gunman responsible for the Gilroy shooting. The photo on the right comes from a story by KTVT in Dallas about Patrick Crusius, 21, the suspect linked to the El Paso shooting.
The shooting suspects may look similar, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same person. Authorities in both El Paso and Gilroy have identified two different suspects. Plus, Gilroy authorities said the gunman died at the scene of the shooting.
Further, there’s no evidence to suggest that either attack was coordinated or otherwise planned by a left-leaning faction of the U.S. government.
Some articles shared on Facebook claimed that police in other cities had prevented similar attacks.
A website called City News published an article claiming that the Omaha Police Department had "foiled a mass shooting plot by a 32-year old man." The story is nearly identical to another article from the website that claims the same thing happened in Des Moines, so we decided to check them out.
Michael Pecha, public information officer for the Omaha Police Department, told PolitiFact in an email that the story is false; the OPD has had "no incidents of this nature." We also reached out to the Des Moines Police Department and we’ll update this story if we hear back.
The Facebook page Qanon NC published a photo of two New York Post headlines side-by-side. The first shows a mugshot of Crusius, identified as the El Paso gunman, while the second purports to show a photo of the same person. The man in the first mugshot appears to have darker hair and skin than the person in the second.
"They just CHANGED the identity of the El Paso shooter and nobody freaking noticed," the post claimed.
The headlines included in the Facebook post come from two separate stories about the prosecution of Crusius. The first, published the morning of Aug. 4, uses the lighter-skinned photo of the suspect. The second, published the afternoon of the same day, displays the darker-skinned photo.
On Aug. 5, the El Paso Police Department released a mugshot of Crusius, which appears to be the same one that the New York Post included in its later article about the suspect. Other media outlets, such as KTVT and WFAA, aired the other image and attributed it to the suspect’s Facebook page, which was deleted after the shooting.
The New York Post did not "change the identity of the shooter," as Qanon NC claimed in its Facebook post. The newspaper listed Crusius as the suspect in both of its stories and has not deleted or corrected its previous story. It’s likely the photo that media outlets initially published was out-of-date.
Psychiatric drugs are a common culprit as people search for answers following horrific violence. But experts say there is no credible research linking medications to mass shootings.
One widely shared Facebook meme featured photos of some of the most notorious killers in recent memory, including the Charleston shooter Dylann Roof and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, along with a caption that reads: "All of these mass shooters were on psychotropic drugs but I don’t hear anyone calling for stronger prescription control."
Experts who have studied the relationship between mass shootings and mental illness told us the claim has no scientific basis.
"I’m not aware of any evidence that has demonstrated a credible connection — causal or otherwise — between psychiatric medication and mass violence," said Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Duwe has authored a history of mass murder in the United States.
A rumor about Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration law — took off after the El Paso shooting: "ICE just rolled up to the school where the families are reunifying after the El Paso shooting to check citizenship papers."
But that isn't true.
When we contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a spokeswoman said that "ICE does not conduct immigration enforcement operations during tragedies like the one that recently impacted El Paso, Texas. This is not a time to compound one tragedy upon another by spreading fear in our community with false rumors of ICE operations."
This story was last updated at 3:20 p.m. Aug. 6.
City News, "BREAKING NEWS: Mass shooting in Des Moines thwarted by DMPD," accessed Aug. 5, 2019
City News, "BREAKING NEWS: Mass shooting in Omaha thwarted by OPD," accessed Aug. 5, 2019
Dayton Daily News, "Oregon District mass shooting: What you need to know this morning," Aug. 5, 2019
El Paso Times, "El Paso shooting victims list update: What we know about the Walmart victims as of Monday," Aug. 5, 2019
FBI statement, Aug. 4, 2019
First Draft, "Don’t get tricked: Checks on fake news that anyone can do," Nov. 4, 2016
Fox News, "Trump, 2020 Dems condemn El Paso mass shooting: 'Act of cowardice,’" Aug. 4, 2019
KWTX-TV, "Feds: Texas man planning mass shooting hit with weapons charge," Aug. 3, 2019
Statement from Michael Pecha, public information officer for the Omaha Police Department, Aug. 5, 2019
Time, "El Paso Walmart Shooting Death Toll Increases to 22 After Victims Die in Hospital. Here's What to Know," Aug. 3, 2019
WhoIs search, Aug. 5, 2019
Jam City Antifa, Facebook post, Aug. 4, 2019
New York Times, "El Paso Shooting Suspect’s Manifesto Echoes Trump’s Language," Aug. 4, 2019
Advanced Twitter search, @realdonaldtrump and @whitehouse, accessed Aug. 5, 2019
Factba.se, "Donald Trump - Deleted Tweets," Aug. 4, 2019
Email interview with Bill Frischling, the CEO of Factba.se, Aug. 5, 2019