Hoax Hits Tragedy in Las Vegas
How U.S. outlets loosely aligned with Kremlin media are spreading conspiracy theories about the Las Vegas shooting
In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, October 1, fringe media started circulating conspiracy theories ranging between suggestions that two shooters carried out the tragedy to arguing it was a “false flag”.
Conspiracy theories after a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, or any other tragedy are not uncommon. The Las Vegas shooting, however, presents a new, or perhaps previously underreported, dimension to this issue — the curious case of Kremlin-aligned media and Twitter accounts authoring and spreading these theories.
Veterans Today is a fringe media site catering to retired veterans, which has been involved in spreading several Kremlin-aligned fake stories that @DFRLab debunked in the past year. As Politico reported in June, Veterans Today struck a content-sharing partnership in 2013 with “New Eastern Outlook”, an international relations journal published by the Kremlin-funded Russian Academy of Science. In 2015, it partnered with South Front, a strongly pro-Kremlin outlet registered in Moscow, which regularly praises Russia’s military operation in Syria and attacks open source researchers focused on Russia, such as Bellingcat and the Atlantic Council.
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas attack, Veterans Today published an article titled “What are the odds Las Vegas shooting was a false flag?”. The article was written by Kevin Barrett, Veterans Today editor. In the article, Barrett concluded that the odds the Las Vegas shooting was a false flag were “at least 50–50.”
Rather than providing direct evidence or primary sources for his theory, Barrett posed a series of “what are the odds?” questions, focusing on circumstantial points — for example:
What are the odds that the crackling gunfire heard in the video below, and other recordings, is coming from one guy shooting a semi-automatic (not full automatic) weapon?
What are the odds that DHS [the Department for Homeland Security] was in Nevada not long ago as part of a plan that ran from last November right up until very recently, mimicking events like the one that just happened, by pure coincidence?
I hate to jump to conclusions. But given what we know about Operations Gladio and Gladio B, the above-noted issues do suggest the likelihood of this being another false flag event. (…) Terrorized populations allow governments to trample on their rights. Terrorized populations are easy to stampede off to war. Terrorized populations become like little children, credulously listening to their leaders, who become substitute parent figures.
As context, Barrett wrote, “Operation Gladio was a Pentagon-sponsored NATO program that used false flag terrorism to promote a ‘strategy of tension’.” What he did not mention was the fact that in 2006 the State Department denied it ordered or supported any “false flag” operations and provided evidence these accusations were a rehashed Soviet era disinformation story, based on documents that Soviets themselves forged.
Barrett concluded by saying that this “free-floating” anxiety can be turned against North Korea, Iran, Russia or China; push gun control; or “keep the whole post-9/11 Orwellian dystopia going and growing.”
In sum, Barrett implied that the indiscriminate murder of 58 people and the wounding of hundreds of others was the work of the United States government.
The Veterans Today story was picked up by a fringe media outlet “TheEventChronicle.com” and shared over 2,800 times on social media, primarily Facebook.
Strategic Culture Foundation
Russia’s Strategic Culture Foundation is a “Moscow think tank run by Yuri Prokofiev, a former head of Moscow’s Communist Party and member of the Soviet Politburo.” The site describes itself as “a platform for exclusive analysis, research and policy comment on Eurasian and global affairs.” Its content is routinely anti-American and pro-Kremlin.
For example, its website features headlines such as “Why United States is the Fourth Reich” and “US cracks down on RT, trampling core American values”.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, the Strategic Culture Foundation re-published a conspiracy theory about Vegas, which first appeared on StephenLendman.org. The article in question was suggestive rather than definitive, writing:
One gunman able to kill or wound hundreds of people single-handedly raises suspicions.
Witnesses on the scene suggested multiple shooters. One unnamed individual insisted there were more than one. It would seem likely given the high casualty count.
The article compared Las Vegas to other mass shootings surrounded by conspiracy theories, including the Sandy Hook in 2012 and Norway’s Utoeya Island shooting in 2011, both of which were the work of lone-wolf attackers:
Was Sunday’s Las Vegas incident another Utoeya Island, Norway or Sandy Hook-type incident?
The author left the speculation dangling; however, the overall effect was to elevate rumor above widely-reported facts, and to cast increasing doubt on the course of events, without providing solid evidence to back its implications.
Sputnik News, a Kremlin-funded media outlet whose official mission is to “report the state policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian public life, abroad,” found itself in hot water when it published an article with the headline “FBI Says Las Vegas Shooter Has Connection With Daesh Terror Group”. Forbes called out Sputnik for publishing a misleading headline: “on Monday […] the social network’s ‘Trending Topic’ page for the shooting directed users toward more false reports, including stories by Russian propaganda site Sputnik with headlines such as “FBI Says Las Vegas Shooter Has Connection With Daesh Terror Group”.
Sputnik claimed that the headline was simply “published with a typo in the headline which originally was missing the word ‘No’.” It accused Forbes of blowing said “typo” out of proportion, and said that the error was soon rectified.
Apart from this story, which was edited, Sputnik International reported on the story with relative accuracy.
On Twitter, several self-described Kremlin-aligned Twitter accounts spread and amplified conspiracy theory articles and videos.
#IStandWithRussia, which the three accounts above have used in their profiles, was used to express solidarity with Russia back in 2015 when a Russian SU-24 was downed by the Turkish Air Force for violating the country’s airspace.
The above-mentioned accounts do not have a significant following and their influence should not be overstated.
Kremlin-aligned media outlets and Kremlin-aligned Twitter accounts played a role in spreading conspiracy theories and hoaxes about the Las Vegas shooting. Limited readership and following on Twitter contained their reach, and the material appears to have reached those seeking out conspiracy theories. In fact, the Veterans Today story appeared on the first page of Google search results for “Las Vegas” and “False Flag”
Despite low engagement, this is a case study of how loosely Kremlin-aligned media outlets and Twitter users can be mobilized to spread hoaxes and conspiracy theories in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or a mass shooting to confuse and distort the facts and sow distrust in the government and law-enforcement agencies.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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