'They're trolling the trolls back': How Parkland survivors are responding to conspiracy theorists

Conspiracy theorists say the Parkland shooting was fake and that the survivors are "crisis actors." Buzzfeed editor Craig Silverman explains how the students are fighting back.
David Hogg speaks at a rally calling for more gun control after a shooting at his school in Parkland, Fla. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

After surviving the school shooting that killed seventeen people at their Florida high school last week, teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas have quickly become ardent and active gun control advocates.

After appearing on various national news networks in the days following the shooting, the students met with President Donald Trump on Wednesday. That night, they spoke with a National Rifle Association representative at a CNN town hall

Now they're organizing a gun reform rally, called March For Our Lives, scheduled for March 24 in Washington, D.C.

People join together to protest against guns on February 17, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

However, not everyone is convinced that the efforts by the students are genuine. Conspiracy theorists and online trolls claim the survivors are "crisis actors," faking their trauma to push an anti-gun agenda.

The students aren't having it, and they've spent this week fighting back against the trolls.

Craig Silverman is a media editor Buzzfeed News who focuses on the spread of misinformation and fake news. He's been following the story closely.

He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about 'crisis actors' and how the Parkland survivors are responding. Here's part of their conversation.

Brent Bambury: What is a crisis actor?

Craig Silverman: A crisis actor is part of a conspiracy theory. It's a claim that, for example at the Parkland shootings, instead of 17 people actually being killed, those people and the others at the school were all paid actors to act out a scenario of a shooter there, but in fact there were no shootings. No one died. It's all just made up to create a media outrage that the government and other shadowy entities use to control people.

This strange idea — that real people are actors being paid — where does that come from?

This is this is a concept that comes out of a long-held conspiratorial claim of a false flag, meaning an event that is triggered and created in order to enable the government or another entity to do something. It's kind of evolved really since Sandy Hook.

(Craig Silverman) ( )

There's evidence that Alex Jones, who pushed this idea that Sandy Hook was staged, doesn't actually believe the conspiracy that he is propagating. Do the people pushing these conspiracies around the Parkland, Florida, shooting believe what they're saying?

I think there's a mix. So there are people who we could call opportunists who want to kind of create confusion. They want to see some chaos happen. They want to troll people. So there's those folks who see it as an opportunistic thing to talk about.

Absolutely there are other folks who 100 per cent buy into this idea of crisis actors. Who buy into the idea that there are shadowy, elite groups who control everything that happens in the world, and everyone who doesn't see that is just being fooled by them. So we have a mixture of motivations, but ultimately, together they're helping push this stuff out there more.

The New York Times profiled one of the people who created one of the YouTube videos in the Marjory Stoneman case. He's marginal, he's unrepentant, and he's anonymous. But what happens when someone like a legislative assistant or the son of the president suggests that this video is legitimate?

This is, I think, one of the things that's really interesting and also alarming about this particular example.

You mentioned a legislative assistant. So, somebody who works for a legislator in Florida actually told a reporter that these were crisis actors and it wasn't real. This is somebody responding from their official government email. That is not something that we are used to seeing in these cases. It's usually kind of contained to the fringe.

And yeah, some of the videos on YouTube, and others, will get a decent amount of views, but you don't see folks in positions of power embracing and pushing this out as much. So that's one thing that I definitely think is a little bit different about this in this scenario, and something that we certainly should be alarmed about.

And what about from the pushback? What about from the perspective of the people who are answering to these conspiracy theories? What makes this time different from Sandy Hook or the Quebec mosque shooting, which also had conspiracy theories attached to it?

Something that I think has been kind of a game changer in this is the students themselves, who obviously have become very outspoken and they're really quite articulate.

They're also calling out these trolls, and they're calling out these conspiracy theorists, and they're meeting this stuff head on. Usually what happens is that people who are caught up in these things don't necessarily have that time or put the effort in to calling them out directly, but these teens are online, they're engaging, they're calling people out. And when they're asked about this stuff by the media, you know, they give responses ranging from being really outraged about it, but also in some cases they're making fun of it.

They're kind of trolling the trolls back, and in some ways I think that might be pretty effective.

For a brief time at least, Craig, some of these videos were topping trending charts on mainstream platforms like YouTube and Facebook. How does that happen?

Well it's a mixture of humans and machines, which is what we see a lot in today's media, frankly.

So, on one level you have humans who are obviously creating these videos, creating this content, and they're sharing it they're pushing it out there. And because it creates an emotional reaction in some other people, they're viewing it, they're sharing it. At a certain point, that level of human activity gets noticed by the algorithms on YouTube and Facebook that help determine what content should maybe be shown to more people. Once it gets that kind of algorithmic push a lot more people are going to see it, and if they react and share it, well, then, you know, off you go.

So it's a combination of factors that resulted, at the end of the day, in a lot more people being exposed to this.

So should those platforms be better at identifying something that's propaganda or something that's fake earlier, before it becomes something that's being promoted by their algorithm?

People have asked [YouTube and Facebook] about how these things got promoted and they both said that that's not the way their system is supposed to work.

I think they're exercising a little more control, or at least attempting to, because the reality is they're still not very good at detecting and suppressing this stuff. It still gets out there. It still gets a lot of views. Their algorithms are still promoting it,  which they admit now is really a failure of the way it's supposed to work.

Craig, you said that the reaction that these young people in Parkland, Florida, have is a 'game changer' in the way that they've handled this. So what have we learned now about how fake news might be countered going forward?

There's often a tendency for people to kind of go silent and ignore crazy claims, but sometimes meeting it head on — especially if it's something that's already getting attention — is good.

I think the second thing that we're seeing about it is the tone. These are crazy and ridiculous claims. I think that maybe there is something to be said for this approach, rather than a super serious approach —  actually treating this ridiculousness as ridiculous and exposing people for pushing this stuff out there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear our full interview with Craig Silverman, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.