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The morning after the Pulse attack in Orlando, Christine Leinonen still didn't know her son was among the dead. She walked the streets with pictures, begged national news shows to let her appear and tell her story. When she finally heard her only child, Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, had been killed along with his boyfriend, Juan Guerrero, it set her life permanently in a new direction. But to this day, a number of people online still believe she's lying about the whole thing.
"My son's murder and my subsequent interviews were labeled hoaxes even before I found out that my son had been in fact killed and I was still desperately trying to find him," Leinonen wrote on Facebook last week. "Just one of the many hoax videos of me got a million views. The interest to try to believe the shooting didn't occur was greater than knowing the truth."
Like many national tragedies before it -- the Sandy Hook shooting, the killings of WDBJ television journalists, the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- a community of like-minded conspiracy theorists seemingly rose from nowhere to call the whole thing a hoax. And I can verify that in this instance, the wackos wasted no time.
Six months ago today, I showed up at Pulse to cover the tragedy for The Advocate. The first thing I encountered when I arrived outside the media staging area was a man waving a "False Flag" sign made from cardboard. At this point, we knew little in way of details. Not a single casualty had been identified besides shooter Omar Mateen. Authorities released details every few hours, the sort of slow trickle you expect at an active crime scene with investigators still at work. By this point, several blocks surrounding Pulse had been closed to the public. Businesses located near the club couldn't open that morning, and media still weren't allowed near the hospital where many wounded received medical treatment. Of course, the man with the sign could see most of this with his own two eyes yet still waved the placard defiantly, believing his presence would alert somebody of an elusive "truth."
Searching through YouTube, it's not hard to find videos "explaining" the rampant use of "crisis actors" by the federal government. The story goes, as it always does, that these folks get hired Wag the Dog-style to enact tragic events. The reason? That's up to you, but some nefarious motive always explains away the lapses in logic. Usually the top levels of the federal government will be micromanaging these affairs for the sake of some policy breakthrough like gun control. But why would President Obama, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott join forces when the latter have (successfully) opposed such reforms? Antiterrorism dollars? Who knows. No unholy marriage of agendas explains this elaborate a hoax. But then maybe I'm just a part of the grand conspiracy or such a rube that I'm easily fooled.
Many Pulse conspiracies revolve around Christopher Hansen, a man who got out of the club early and can be seen on local news footage helping carry people out. Hansen wore an American flag shirt and a recognizable fedora. Folks note Hansen's clothes are not covered in blood, which is consistent with the fact he wasn't shot and only helped move people who had been cleaned up by paramedics. YouTube videos debate whether Hansen could actually be local actor Bjorn Jiskoot, a man who on Facebook reveals he has been harassed because of the resemblance. It seems important to some to allege Jiskoot isn't even gay, so Hansen must be pretending to be. Why else would a straight actor be in a gay club using a fake identity? Every snag in theory only serves as evidence of a cover-up in certain quarters.
I have interviewed Hansen several times over the course of the last few months. The first time was shortly after the shooting. Because he was a native English speaker willing to get on camera, media flocked to him when he returned to Pulse a day after the attack to retrieve a car still trapped behind crime scene tape. I sat down with him in a Jason's Deli when he went over the events of the club for perhaps the hundredth time. He'd already become aware that conspiracy nuts pegged him as an actor.
If so, he's a committed one. I spoke to Hansen more recently at Orlando Come Out With Pride, where he'd been invited to march with other Pulse survivors. His hair dyed glittering purple, he obviously was in much better spirits. With stories of attending the Out 100 party in New York with his father, with whom he has only grown closer since a near-brush with death, Hansen has become much more entrenched in the community since the attack, with folks from many walks of life greeting him in Orlando's streets. But the hoax accusations continue. He understands the woman he helped carry on that famous news clip has been additionally traumatized by online "exposes" that "prove" she was just a mannequin.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump, who benefited from a difficult-to-tabulate assist from fringe conspiracy sites like Alex Jones's InfoWars, "fake news" has become a topic du jour for bantering pundits. But we should remember this news damages more than our discourse. This faux journalism damages real people's lives. Leinonen suffers daily from the loss of her child. Hansen still gets triggered by fireworks displays at Walt Disney World. And on top of it all, these people get hurt in meaningful ways by dubious reporting, especially the kind that questions the genuine tragedy they already suffered. If they get forgotten, the true cost of "fake news" will have been forgotten altogether, and their pain and loss, their heroism and activism, will be one more casualty of an already cruel attack.