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How online hoaxes grew up around the Nashville school shooting


On Tuesday, a fake manifesto first shared on the message board 4chan, falsely claiming that the shooter at a Nashville school had acted “in the name of trans rights,” was shared by right-wing activists on Twitter and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

A day later, police raced to schools across Pennsylvania and New Jersey after receiving calls falsely reporting that they, too, were under attack. State troopers later said the calls were “believed to be computer-generated.”

Both incidents highlight how trolls and liars are using computer tools to muddle the truth about mass killings, either to stir up panic or take advantage of the tragedies for ideological gain.

They also underscore how advances in artificial-intelligence tools for creating fake images and lifelike voices could contribute to the chaos for police, parents and others responding to the attacks.

“We’re seeing how mass shootings can and have been exploited by bad actors to inflame social conflicts,” said Alex Goldenberg, the lead intelligence analyst for the Network Contagion Research Institute, a group that analyzes social media for hate speech and extremism.

The fake manifesto’s creator, he said, was “trying to act like a distressed transgender individual, with the aim of further marginalizing and alienating the community.”

The 4chan post is anonymous, and it’s not clear how the fake manifesto was made. But the document, Goldenberg said, appears to have been created using image-editing software with a font that mimics handwriting.

Police have also not shared further details of how the “computer-generated” calls were made. Cheap online software now allows anyone to quickly and convincingly impersonate a person’s voice, and it has been used for corporate thefts and impostor scams.

The shooting Monday morning at the Covenant School, a small Christian school in Nashville, left three adults and three 9-year-olds dead; the shooter was also killed.

Police have said the shooter, Audrey Hale, was transgender, citing Hale’s use of male pronouns on a social media account. The Washington Post has not yet confirmed how Hale identified.

Though 96 percent of the 340 mass killings involving a single shooter since 2006 were committed by cisgender men, right-wing commentators have used the Nashville shooting to criticize transgender people for an “epidemic” of mass violence and for their increasing visibility in American life.

The fake manifesto shared on 4chan, a fringe site with few rules and many extreme posts, alleged that the shooter had a “trans motive.” Nashville police said they’re examining Hale’s writing but have shared no evidence that the shooter’s gender identity played a role in the attack.

Some users noted on 4chan within minutes of the document’s posting that it appeared fake. But by Tuesday morning, the document was spreading quickly across Twitter with help from right-wing influencers such as Ian Miles Cheong, who said the document, “if true,” revealed how the shooter was “a militant leftist who killed in the name of trans rights” and was “truly lost in the media’s narrative echo chamber.”

Cheong, who lives in Malaysia and has more than 500,000 followers, was sent the document by a meme account that is pro- Donald Trump and responded that it “does seem legit.” Cheong’s tweet sharing the fake manifesto, which remains online with no disclaimer explaining it’s fabricated, has been viewed more than 270,000 times.

On Wednesday, when asked on Twitter why he hadn’t deleted the debunked manifesto, Cheong responded, “Debunked by whom? I didn’t say it was real.” On Thursday morning, Cheong tweeted, “The truth should always be your highest value.” Cheong did not respond to a request from The Post for comment.

Within the past few months, Cheong has exchanged messages on Twitter with owner Elon Musk, including in response to a Musk tweet saying the app should “become by far the most accurate source of information about the world.” Twitter now automatically declines to answer journalists’ questions about any subject.

Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Ella Irwin, also responded directly to Cheong on Tuesday by saying the company had removed tweets related to a “trans day of vengeance” protest this weekend in Washington. Organizers have said the protest is not violent.

On Wednesday, two days after the Nashville shooting, state police officials reported that a rash of hoax calls, some of which were thought to be “computer-generated,” had triggered lockdowns and evacuations at schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including two Catholic schools in Pittsburgh.

FBI officials in Pittsburgh said in a statement they’d seen “numerous swatting incidents,” using a term for active-shooter hoaxes that can prompt a massive police response. Similar calls have in recent days targeted schools in Iowa, Massachusetts, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Swatting has become a common harassment tool and a scourge for American education. A Wired investigation in October found more than 90 false shooting reports, covering schools in 16 states, had been called in during a roughly two-week period, many of which appeared coordinated by a single person or group using software that can make anonymous calls over the web.

It’s not clear what tools were used in those cases or for a similar incident in Massachusetts last year, when a high school was evacuated because of what police said was a “computer-generated bomb threat.”

The hoaxes have not only preyed on the worst nightmares of teachers, students and parents. They can also contribute to the confusion of a possible crisis moment when police are trained that every lost second can raise the risk of a young life being lost.

Dustin Sternbeck, a D.C. police spokesman, said the agency has dealt with bomb threats and swatting calls aimed at local schools and worked to identify and penalize the callers.

“When you get a call about an active shooter, there’s already a heightened level of stress and complications to it,” Sternbeck said. “It always requires a big safety presence and response at a time when agencies across the country” are dealing with low staffing and other concerns.

Goldenberg, the analyst, said the growing sophistication of online tools raises the risks of confusion and misuse in future attacks.

“Are these companies that are rapidly growing, chasing profits, weighing in the risks of potential abuse by bad actors who will easily be able to exploit these tools?” he asked.

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