On 20 February 2018, as a group of students from the Parkland, Florida mass shooting attack traveled to their state capitol to lobby for tighter gun safety measures, far right conspiracy blogs pushed increasingly hysterical claims that at least one of the survivors of the massacre was a “deep state” pawn.
For example, TheGatewayPundit.com posted a story calling it a “red flag” that David Hogg, a senior who survived the Valentine’s Day attack at the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, volunteered during a CNN interview that his father is a retired agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation as he criticized the Trump administration. President Donald Trump had accused the bureau of “spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign” and thus failing to follow up on warnings concerning the suspect, Nikolas Cruz.
Hogg, who has become a high-profile advocate for tighter gun safety legislation since the attack, said during the interview that: “I think it’s disgusting, personally. My father’s a retired FBI agent and the FBI are some of the hardest working individuals I have ever seen in my life.”
But according to the Gateway Pundit:
Anyone who has been following the news could tell you that many in the FBI have been working against the president from the start, with the most notable case involving collusion between the FBI, Obama Administration, and the Clinton campaign to push the false ‘verification’ of the junk Steele Dossier. It has also been widely reported that the FBI received tips well in advance of the Florida school shooting and decided, for whatever reason, not to act.
The fault for this tragedy lies squarely on the shoulder’s of the FBI, who could have prevented this back in January.
The site also accused Hogg of “not remembering his lines” while posting a video of him making statements and stumbling over his words prior to a pre-taped interview.
The Gateway Pundit is one of several blogs that was named in a federal defamation lawsuit filed in Michigan earlier in February 2018, accusing them of falsely identifying a teen as the driver that killed Heather Heyer during a counter-protest against white nationalists in Charlotesville, Virginia in August 2017.
Another blog published a story calling into question that Hogg would be interviewed by CBS News less than a year after his footage of a friend’s contentious encounter with a lifeguard was covered by the network’s affiliate in Los Angeles — although despite new rumors about the viral video, no guns were involved. Conspiracy theorists and trolls alike heavily implied that a months-old video (despite the facts that he readily identified himself with the same name, that people occasionally travel across the United States, and that his family moved to Florida from Los Angeles) is somehow “proof” that he is a trained “crisis actor,” a baseless rumor that is inevitably pushed after horrific mass shootings:
However, Hogg posted on Twitter last August that he was visiting Los Angeles, and Hogg, who runs his high school’s television station, made a video under his own name documenting the altercation afterward — hardly the actions of a “trained crisis actor” who needs to keep his identity secret:
A separate clip posted on YouTube — which reproduced the CBS affiliates’ report under a different title, “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR” — was removed from the platform after it was listed “#1 in trending.” The site later said in a statement:
This video should never have appeared in Trending. Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it. As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward.
A related rumor appeared later on 20 February 2018, when hoaxers tried to further sow doubt by claiming that Hogg graduated from a Los Angeles-area high school in 2015 — even going so far as to create a Classmates.com profile. However, the page’s source code clearly shows when the profile was created (highlighted):
This claim also appeared alongside an image purporting to show yearbook proof that Hogg graduated from the California school in 2015:
This was quickly debunked by Sarah Chadwick, another survivor of the mass shooting:
She claims it’s not a Douglas yearbook (which I promise it is, I know multiple people in that picture) yet there’s someone in the pic wearing a douglas t-shirt???? pic.twitter.com/BwPDyGztgK
— Sarah Chadwick// #NEVERAGAIN (@sarahchad_) February 21, 2018
Another student, Joey Wong, posted a video of himself opening a Douglas High yearbook and showing Hogg listed as an eleventh-grader, along with his picture:
There’s a photo going around claiming David Hogg did not attend Douglas, but a school in California. Here’s a video to debunk that: pic.twitter.com/hJsMNSdAsF
— Joey (@_Joey_Wong) February 21, 2018
Other blogs posted a mugshot of a different person — 26-year-old David Guyton Hogg of South Carolina — claiming that he was “posing” as the Parkland survivor:
But besides their difference in appearance, the South Carolina man’s mugshot states he has blue eyes while the teen’s eyes are darker:
The president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., highlighted the Gateway Pundit story about the FBI and another by another far-right outlet, True Pundit, on his own Twitter account. Hogg described his actions as “immature, rude, and inhuman,” saying:
I just think it’s a testament to the sick immaturity and broken state of our government when these people feel the need to peddle conspiracy theories about people that were in a school shooting where 17 people died and it just makes me sick. It’s immature, rude, and inhuman for these people to destroy the people trying to prevent the death of the future of America because they won’t.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, an aide for one state lawmaker, Republican Rep. Shawn Harrison, provided this response to a picture of Hogg and fellow student activist Emma Gonzalez:
Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis [sic] when they happen.
We contacted Harrison’s office seeking follow-up comment or documentation supporting the remark from the aide, identified as Benjamin Kelly. In reply to a request for more information, Kelly reportedly sent the Times an e-mail containing a link to a YouTube video promoting the conspiracy theory against the two teens. The lawmaker told the Times:
If my aide disparaged a student from Parkland who is grieving than I will deal most strongly with my aide … Clearly it was inappropriate for him to send that.
Harrison later said on his own Twitter account:
I was just made aware that my aide made an insensitive and inappropriate allegation about Parkland students today. I have spoken to him and placed him on leave until we determine an appropriate course of action. I do not share his opinion and he did so without my knowledge.
Kelly later confirmed on Twitter that he had been fired:
I’ve been terminated from the State House. I made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting. This was not my responsibility. I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland. Rep. Shawn Harrison is an honest and respectable man. In no way should he be held responsible for my error in judgement.
He later deleted his account entirely.
Despite the presence of the Douglas High students in attendance, the Florida House voted on 20 February 2018 not to consider a bill calling for a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines for firearms.
Update [20 February 2018]: Added details throughout.
Update [21 February 2018]: Added a video from Douglas High student showing Hogg in the school yearbook.
Update [21 February 2018]: Noted that a video reproducing a CBS affiliate report on Hogg was removed from YouTube.