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Online conspiracy theories accusing prominent Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors of faking a national tragedy earned the dubious distinction of Politifact's "Lie of the Year."
Victims-turned-advocates like out survivor Emma Gonzalez won acclaim and notoriety this year for finally changing the terms of debate on gun control and school safety. Gonzalez lost close friends among the 17 students and teachers murdered at the Parkland, Fla., high school on February 14.
This publication named Gonzalez, president of the high school's gay-straight alliance, to The Advocate Hall of Fame for applying the lessons from LGBTQ activism to the new March For Our Lives political movement. The Parkland Survivors as a group were honored at the same time as Champions of Pride.
But online trolls in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy spread fabrications about the survivors, calling them crisis actors. They baselessly accused Gonzalez of ties to the Cuban government and spread doctored images of her tearing up the U.S. Constitution. Fellow survivor David Hogg was accused of secretly being an actor from California paid by left-wing billionaires.
"The students and the country were about to learn a hard lesson about participating in democracy in 2018," writes Politifact. "That you don't have to be a politician to be on the receiving end of the internet's worst hoaxes."
It's similar to the hoaxes that popped up in past tragedies, including accusations in 2016 that survivors of the Pulse mass shooting were actually crisis actors.
Politifact, the prominent political fact-checking website, is based in Florida, the same state where the Parkland shooting (and Pulse shooting) occurred. The site documented how lies about MSD High students spread as their activists profiles quickly grew. Conspiracy theories were fueled by platforms like Alex Jones's InfoWars. Politifact spotlighted specific lies this year about Parkland activists with its "Pants on Fire" rating.
Still, the lies took hold even in halls of power, such as a Florida legislature aide who told the press that Gonzalez and Hogg were "actors that travel to various [crises] when they happen." Less dramatic lies also earned the attention of some powerful figures, like when Donald Trump Jr., who helped spread accusations anti-Trump activists coached Hogg on media statements.
But the particularly heinous targeting of minors whose friends were murdered at least drew bipartisan condemnation from figures like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who represents the Florida students, and Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu. In comparison, conspiracy theories about Pulse victims were widely ignored by mainstream media and political leaders.
Politifact, which in the past spotlighted statements by political leaders for its "Lie of the Year" distinction, said the conspiracy theories around the Parkland tragedy deserved special attention in 2018.
"In another year of lament about the lack of truth in politics, the attacks against Parkland's students stand out because of their sheer vitriol," the site writes. "Together, the lies against the Parkland students in the wake of unspeakable tragedy were the most significant falsehoods of 2018."