Within minutes of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis being named as the school shooter in Santa Fe, Texas, who killed 10 and wounded at least 10 more at a high school there Friday morning, Russian Twitter bots and other right-wing internet trolls began to spread false information about the alleged mass killer — including at least two Facebook profiles that appeared in Pagourtzis’ name, portraying the teen as a supporter of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The fake Facebook pages showing Pagourtzis wearing a Hillary Clinton baseball cap — an image that had been digitally altered from an an actual image from the teen’s now-deleted authentic Facebook profile — also attempted to link him to Antifa, the “anti-fascist” group that frequently stages counter-protests against far-right demonstrators, by including an Antifa logo as the featured image on the fake Facebook page.
“There’s also a lot of bot activity on Twitter related to the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas,” observed Caroline Orr, an expert on Russian internet propaganda at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Four of the top 10 two-word phrases tweeted by automated accounts over the past 24 hours are related to the school shooting,” Orr wrote on her Twitter account shortly after the shooting Friday morning.
Securing Democracy, an organization that tracks troll and “bot” activity on Twitter, showed that mentions of “Santa Fe” on Twitter accounts identified as “Russian-linked” jumped by between 4,000 and 7,000 percent in the aftermath of the shooting.
The shooter’s name is Dimitrios Pagourtzis. If you look him up on Facebook, there’s already some idiot Trump supporter that created a fake profile with a photoshopped picture of the shooter with a “Hillary 2016” hat on. Created 7 minutes ago. People are sick. pic.twitter.com/6qYmxG79Az
— Jared (@jaredv87) May 18, 2018
Another site that tracks Russian troll and bot activity, Bot Sentinel, showed “Santa Fe” as the third-most tweeted two-word phrase by bot and troll accounts in the previous 24 hours, as of 4 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Friday, behind only “President Trump” and “Gang Members.” The fourth most frequently tweeted phrase by the Russia-linked accounts was “high school” with “school shooting” coming in sixth.
Orr also found a right-wing, internet troll forum on 4Chan was quickly spreading a conspiracy theory claiming that the Santa Fe shooting was a “false flag” operation — meaning a staged incident created by the government for a secret, ulterior purpose.
4chan trolls are spreading a conspiracy theory claiming that the Texas shooting was a false flag operation designed to distract from the DOJ inspector general's report about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. pic.twitter.com/S6XXEeLnMs
— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) May 18, 2018
In addition to the two fake Facebook profiles supposedly linking Dimitrios Pagourtzis to Hillary Clinton and Antifa, a third Facebook page suddenly appeared on Friday morning, with the title, “Dimitrios Pagourtzis is Innocent.” An archived version of that Facebook profile may be viewed at this link.
In fact, according to a report by The Daily Beast online magazine Friday, Pagourtzis was far from a left-wing Antifa or Clinton fan. Instead, the alleged school shooter — who was reportedly taken into custody by police — displayed a fascination with extreme right-wing, neo-Nazi symbolism and ideology.
“Images on Pagourtzis’ now-deleted Facebook page suggest a possible interest in white supremacist groups,” The Daily Beast reported, noting that his Facebook featured image was a piece of artwork from an album by the band Perturbator, a favorite of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website.
On April 30, Pagourtzis posted an image of what he said was a custom-made black T-shirt imprinted with the phrase “Born to Kill,” an image which may be viewed at this link. He also posted a picture of a jacket with a German “Iron Cross,” a symbol associated with the Nazis in World War II as well as a pin displaying the “hammer and sickle” icon of the Communist former Soviet Union. That image may be seen at this link.
The presence of Russian trolls online first came to public attention in the aftermath of the 2016 election when law enforcement and congressional investigators found thousands of Russian Twitter and Facebook accounts that spread false information supporting Donald Trump for president and attacking Hillary Clinton with fabricated allegations.
In February, Trump-Russia collusion investigation special counsel Robert Mueller slapped 13 Russians, including oligarch and ringleader Yevgeny Prigozhin with indictments for their alleged roles in the Russian fake news troll operation.