In the frenzied aftermath of Wednesday’s Parkland school shooting that left 17 dead, the peace of mind of people with names similar to shooter Nikolas Cruz has become collateral damage.
At the same time, Russian-linked “bots” — automated user accounts that impersonate humans on social media platforms — are flooding cyber space with divisive political propaganda to exploit the tragedy, according to a report in Wired magazine.
Just hours after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, bot armies began using their online presence to promote conspiracy theories dubbing the attack as “false flags” — an operation organized by the U.S. government as a prelude to the seizure of weapons.
The phenomenon has become common after tragedies such as those in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and Orlando, as inhabitants of the dark fringes of the Internet sow misinformation. The goal, experts believe, is to undermine America’s trust in its government, law enforcement and media institutions, creating deep partisan divides.
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“This pattern of divisive propaganda is becoming a staple in information warfare fueled by social media, but it isn’t exactly new,” Marco T. Bastos, a researcher at City University of London, told CNN Friday. “Similar campaigns can be traced to at least 2014.”
Mere moments after the Parkland shooting on Valentine’s Day, online bots began exploiting the 14 students and three teachers slaughtered.
The bots targeted random people with names similar to the shooter, even posting identification photos online. Some of the attacks falsely claimed the shooter was a “Dreamer,” a reference to the young undocumented immigrants whose status in the United States has led to a fierce, ongoing political debate involving Congress and President Donald Trump.
The Nikolas Cruz who shot up Stoneman Douglas High is an American citizen.
In one post, a Twitter user called a 19-year-old Florida man an ‘illegal #DACA #Dreamer” who is “turning American dreams to nightmares and burdening taxpayers another $40,000/year for prison/care.”
Choked up, the teen’s mother told the Miami Herald she is desperate for “the abuse” to stop.
“My son is not the shooter,” she said. “Leave this family alone. How is it that people can so blatantly mistake my good, amazing, hardworking, smart son with that killer?”
Univision first reported on the young man’s plight.
The man, who is of Colombian descent, was born the same year as the shooter. He has been the target of constant threats and harassment, he told Univision on Thursday.
“I fear for my parents because people think they are responsible for what happened and they have my information,” he said.
“It’s unacceptable,” his mother said. “Because of the lies on the Internet, people keep calling. They don’t leave him alone. They are doing so much damage.”
The response was so frightening that the mother felt compelled to pull out her son’s passport: “You see, he is a citizen,” she said.
Her son proceeded to display his high school diploma with his full name and the institution he graduated from, proving he was not the Nikolas Cruz charged with murder.
Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report