Far-right websites and conspiracy theorists have promoted conspiracy theories alleging a mass shooting suspect was an anti-fascist activist in the wake of a deadly attack that left 26 people dead in a Texas church.
On Sunday, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley allegedly opened fire in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, located some 50km from San Antonio, killing 26 and injuring at least 20 others.
After fleeing the church and being pursued by police, Kelley was found dead in his car on the border with the neighbouring county.
Far-right forums and websites wasted little time ascribing the blame to anti-fascists (also known as Antifa), sharing a doctored image of the suspected shooter holding up a flag that read “anti-fascist action”.
Alex Jones, who heads the InfoWars conspiracy website, tweeted a video clip from his show on Wednesday in which he alleged Kelley was linked to Antifa. Jones described the alleged assailant as “an atheist [paedophile] obsessed with death” who “matches classic Antifa profile”.
Authorities have not ascribed political motivations to the attack, instead saying that the assailant was likely to have been motivated by domestic problems with his in-laws.
“It’s a senseless crime, but we can tell you that there was a domestic situation going on within this family,” Texas Public Safety official Freeman Martin told reporters.
Jared Holt, a writer and researcher at Right-Wing Watch, explained that the proliferation of conspiracy theories following the Texas attack is “definitely part of a pattern”.
“They start [the theories] up before the bullet casings hit the ground these days. Especially with Texas, it was almost immediate,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The playbook seems to be blame the left no matter what,” Holt said, adding that “it can be really hurtful for the families of the victims” and others who lose loved ones in incidents like the mass shooting in Texas.
“They’re still grieving, the community is still healing, but you have this mass insanity of conspiracy theories making it hard to communicate clearly with the community.”
The attack came a day after nationwide demonstrations against US President Donald Trump. InfoWars had spent weeks claiming those protests were an Antifa-led attempt to spark a civil war and overthrow the government. That theory was widely debunked.
Trump has appeared on InfoWars in the past.
‘See themselves as victims’
On Twitter, far-right media activist Jack Posobiec also shared a screenshot of an alleged conversation claiming that It’s Going Down, an online platform for anarchist and anti-fascist news, had discussed and supported the attack in Texas in the comments section of a Facebook post.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, It’s Going Down explained that they subsequently viewed the comments section under the post and did not find the comments from the screenshot. “Obviously we don’t support that activity, and we would have deleted it anyway, and half of our comments are alt-right trolls who we delete and ban,” they said.
Earlier this year, Fox News published a fake story that accused It’s Going Down of publishing an article that called for Trump supporters to be stabbed.
Alluding to the widespread public backlash against the far right following the Charlottesville rally in August, when an anti-racist protester was killed by a far-right march participant in an alleged car ramming, It’s Going Down said: “Now they [the right] need to push a narrative that sees them as victims.”
Mike Cernovich, another far-right writer and conspiracy theorist, took to Twitter on the day of the Texas attack to spread the same accusations that Antifa was behind the shooting. “Mass shooting at The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, which has a largely white denomination,” he wrote. “Antifa terrorist attack?”
That narrative has also been pushed by websites affiliated with the alt-right, a loosely knit coalition of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists. AltRight.com also published a story that included doctored images of the suspected shooter in Texas with an Antifa flag. That article was titled: “We have a left-wing terror problem.”
The theories were not limited to social media, far-right websites and conspiracy theorists.
Although Google and YouTube announced measures last month to restrict the spread of information in breaking news incidents such as mass shootings, an analysis of search results on both platforms demonstrated that they had promoted content linking Kelley to Antifa and left-wing protest movements, as reported by The Guardian on Monday.
RT America, the Russian-state funded news organisation, shared a news article on Facebook that was accompanied by the caption: “Screenshot of his FB [Facebook] page also feature an Antifascist Action banner, sparking speculation online about his ties to left-wing scene.”
Unfounded accusations that Antifa and other left-wing movements are connected to attacks are not new.
In October, InfoWars claimed that Stephen Paddock, who shot and killed 58 people in Las Vegas in one of the worst mass shootings in recent US history, was a supporter of Antifa. That theory was widely circulated on social media outlets and anonymous online forums frequented by far-rightists.
Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and professor at Dartmouth College, argued that the claims are evidence that conspiracy theories are “pretty central to [the far right’s] playbook”.
The claims come at a time when the government has ostensibly cracked down on anti-fascists, Bray noted, with nearly 200 people who were arrested at a demonstration against Trump’s inauguration on January 20 facing a slew of felony charges that could put them in prison for 70-80 years.
“It also says that the alt-right folks are not that sophisticated in their political propaganda,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They have a pretty simple formula: They find something that is uniformly agreed upon as horrific and then photoshop images and claim Antifa is complicit.”