Sam, a transgender woman living in Georgia, said that Tuesday night Reddit users began commenting on a photo of her that she shared on the platform three months ago.
They told her the photo was shared on 4chan, a low-moderation forum site, and people said it showed the gunman who killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday. The gunman, identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was killed by police at the scene.
Sam, 20, who asked to be given her first name to protect her privacy and safety, told NBC News that the photo and others are from her personal Instagram page and that with the image’s distribution she has accepted harassment and abuse was subjected to threats.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been harassed, but it is the first time I’ve been accused of murder,” she said. The false claims began shortly after news of the shooting broke. A photo of Sam was posted to 4chan on Tuesday afternoon, in a post that began with “Here’s the shooter’s Reddit,” before linking to her Reddit account and posting a transphobic slur. While some users said they didn’t believe the photo was of the shooter, other users soon after posted new threads and used less detailed pictures of Sam’s face from their profile.
She said she was upset more than anything: “I’m more worried about the families of the victims of the attack,” she told NBC News.
Social media users and trolls on 4chan, Twitter and Facebook are using Sam’s photos and pictures of at least two other transgender women to promote the unfounded theory that the shooter was transgender. In some cases, they have created collages that place the women’s photos alongside images from an Instagram page believed to have belonged to the shooter.
The claims were circulated by some prominent Conservatives on Tuesday.
Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, said of the shooter in a now-deleted tweet, “It is a transgender left-wing illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos.” Gosar did not return a request for comment.
One of Sam’s photos was shared by the Young Conservatives of Southern Indiana Facebook page, which has more than 4,000 followers.
Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who was successfully sued for defamation for falsely claiming the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax, also repeated the misinformation that the suspect in the Uvalde shooting was trans. Jones’ website officials did not immediately respond to comment.
Conservative figure Candace Owens echoed the argument on Wednesday, referring to “cross-dressing” photos she allegedly saw of the suspect. Owens has previously shared misinformation on her feeds and unsuccessfully sued Facebook in 2021 after the company added a fact-checking warning to one of her posts.
The photos, which social media users claim show that the shooter is actually showing three different transgender women wearing skirts, including Sam. according to the Trans Safety Network, a UK-based group that monitors online threats against the transgender community. The group wrote in a post that all three women have confirmed they are alive.
To debunk the theory, Sam shared a photo of herself standing in front of a transgender pride flag on Reddit on Tuesday night and wrote, “That’s not me, I don’t even live in Texas.” In response to one Commenting on the post, she said she just “wants to live without being attacked when I leave my house.” She also shared another photo of herself holding a piece of paper with the date on it.
She encouraged people to be careful about what they see online.
“There are transphobic people out there, and people are quick to blame someone for terrible things instead of seeking the truth about what actually happened,” Sam told NBC News.
Despite the fact that the posts featuring Sam’s photos violated Twitter and Facebook’s misinformation policies, the platforms have done little to combat the emerging false narrative.
A review of posts on Twitter and Facebook Wednesday morning revealed numerous tweets and posts using Sam’s picture and referring to her as the shooter. In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson said: “In accordance with our hateful behavior policy, we will request the removal of tweets that contain misleading claims about the identity of the perpetrator with the intent to incite fear or fearful stereotypes about a protected category to spread. In addition, the spokesperson said, “In line with our policy on synthetic and manipulated media, we will request that tweets be removed if they contain media that presents false or misleading context as to the identity of the offender.”
A meta spokesperson said the company is removing content that violates its bullying and harassment policy, which bans content “in which criminal allegations cause harm to the named person offline.”
“They have relied on me and others to report the misinformation before they do anything,” Sam said.
Some proponents have condemned the vile theory that the shooter was transgender.
“This has to stop,” Erin Reed, a trans advocate, said on Twitter. She went on to cite investigations Texas launched into the parents of some transgender youth in March, after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state agencies to investigate claims by parents providing gender-affirming medical care to minors.
“A sitting congressman just lied about the Texas gunman to frame transgender people being peddled by troll sites in a state where they spend more time banning trans children than they spend gunning.” regulate,” she said.
Another attorney, Charlotte Clymer, criticized Gosar, saying he “owes the public an apology”.
“It’s pathetic that @DrPaulGosar tried to exploit this terrible tragedy for anti-trans propaganda,” she said. “There is no evidence that the shooter is transgender.”
Reporter and MSNBC contributor Katelyn Burns said this isn’t the first time “right-wing liars have attempted to falsely claim that a mass shooter is trans.” She was referring to an article she wrote in April 2018 after a shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, that left three people injured.
The shooter committed suicide when police arrived at the scene, and thereafter some far-right websites and conservative critics speculated without evidence that the shooter was transgender.
Similarly, Burns noted that after a 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo. that left three people dead, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shared the baseless theory that the shooter was after a far-right transgender reported that he had signed up to vote as a woman.
“Well, it was also reported that he was registered as an independent and left-wing women’s and transgender activist, if that’s what he is,” Cruz said during a 2015 campaign rally, according to Texas Tribune audio.
Cruz’s campaign later told news outlets that he was trying to make it clear that there were still many unknown details about the shooter.
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