An aide to a Florida lawmaker was fired after falsely suggesting that student survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland were “actors”, repeating a conspiracy theory that has been used to harass victims.
Benjamin Kelly, an aide to Republican state representative Shawn Harrison, was terminated after a reporter published his email attacking the students who have become vocal advocates for stricter gun laws after surviving the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school massacre that killed 17 people last week.
Kelly emailed a Tampa Bay Times reporter on Tuesday, saying two of the outspoken high schoolers “are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen”. When asked for evidence, Kelly sent a link to a YouTube conspiracy video targeting one of the students, the newspaper reported.
Late Tuesday, Harrison announced that Kelly had been fired and said he was “appalled at and strongly denounce his comments”, adding that he was “sorry for any pain this has caused the grieving families of this tragedy”.
In recent years, mass shooting survivors and victims’ families have been subjected to online harassment and attacks from conspiracy theorists who go viral on social media by falsely claiming the tragedies were hoaxes and that witnesses and grieving relatives were paid “crisis actors”. Often they have claimed the government staged the shootings to advance gun control policies.
High school students who survived the Parkland tragedy – where a former student used an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle to kill students and staff – have rapidly mobilized to fight for policy reforms. Rightwing media, however, have quickly responded with attacks on the young activists mourning their deceased classmates, and conspiracy theories proven to be false appear to have even influenced a legislative staffer.
Conspiracy videos targeting one of the students, David Hogg, rapidly spread on YouTube, which appeared to be prominently promoting the footage in search results on Tuesday.
Senator Marco Rubio, who has faced backlash this week for accepting money from the National Rifle Association, said that calling the students actors was “the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency”.
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