Why Would Anyone Create an Online Hoax After a Tragedy?

Mourners attend a vigil in Las Vegas on Monday for victims of Sunday’s mass murder. Image via Getty.

Shortly after news broke of the shooting in Las Vegas that has now left 59 people dead, an anonymous Twitter account, subsequently deleted, shared a photograph of a teenage girl. Attached to it was a desperate appeal written entirely in capital letters that described the girl in the photograph as the Twitter user’s 14-year-old daughter, Taylor Joshuas, and that she was supposedly “missing in Mandalay Bay.” “Please RT,” the account urged, again in all caps, the visual lingo that signifies panic and distress. Twitter users did as they were asked. Before the tweet was deleted, it had nearly 1,500 retweets, including one by the lead singer of Slipknot.

Screenshot via Buzzfeed.

The tweet was a hoax; the photograph of the girl was poached, Buzzfeed reported, from a Snapchat/Instagram user named TiinyTaylor, who later updated her Instagram profile to sardonically read “yeah thats me in the buzzfeed article.” That brief arc—the appeal to social media for help followed by the revelation that the tweet was a “hoax”—is, by now, a familiar element in the narrative aftermath of a mass shooting, natural disaster, or tragedy. Photographs of random people, completely unrelated to the event, are taken and repurposed as victims; their images are subsequently circulated across social media by what the media usually identifies as a “troll,” and spread by either members of the troll’s internet subculture or those overeager to perform sympathy or, perhaps, even those who believe that their helplessness in the face of seemingly perpetual tragedy can be assuaged by offering the simple help of a retweet.

Such tweets, accompanied by photographs mostly of children or young women wrongly identified as victims, followed the Grenfell Tower fire, the 2016 Munich shootings, the attack in Manchester, and the March attack near the British Parliament, just to name a recent few. They already have a standard script, usually including an assertation of a close relationship (a sister, father or daughter), a statement of worry or distress (combined with a “please share” or “please RT,” in an appeal to certain sympathies of the internet), and a photograph seemingly chosen to emphasize the particular vulnerability of the purported victim. A quick look at the subgenre shows that the Taylor Joshuas tweet is standard.

This post-tragedy hoax is usually coded with the same moral disdain reserved for producers of “fake news” or alternative facts, or treated as a kind of internet-born “sickness.” It transforms the hoax into an illness rather than considering it a political assertion with purpose or intent. The photographs attached to the hoax assert something about vulnerability—the instability of girlhood that typifies our conception of the teenage girl is the reason for this. It’s also why the selfie itself is such a site of contention. The Taylor Joshuas photograph is both compelling and familiar: a teenage girl taking a selfie in a mirror lit by the reflection of a smartphone flash. 

She is an ideal image of a victim, and conjures up a ready-made reaction: anger or despair over the loss of a girl whose individuality is subsumed into the panicked narrative of girlhood (for a non-hoax related example of this phenomenon, see the post-Manchester spate of teen girl thinkpieces). The photograph is central to the success of the victim hoax. After the Las Vegas shooting, Buzzfeed’s list of social media hoaxes included one claiming to be a photograph of an autistic teen, a young boy, and another of a (supposedly) 15-year-old blonde boy hugging his blonde mother.


The Guardian found that after the Manchester bombing, hoaxers pilfered numerous selfies of teen girls and a photograph of a young boy with Down’s Syndrome taken from a clothing website. Nearly all of the hoax tweets following the Grenfell Tower fire were also photographs of young women and girls, some of which were also used after Manchester (the Guardian notes that the reuse of photographs of women journalists is a “trend within this trend”).


That sharing photos on social media is considered a small kindness is why the post-tragedy hoax tweet is treated as such an offense. An encounter between the photographed and an assumed audience is supposed to be bound by a certain honesty, an expectation that is no doubt heightened in the aftermath of death, compounded by anger and helplessness. The photographs are often labeled “fake” which isn’t quite right; it’s the description, not the photo itself that’s the lie). We should be conditioned for so-called fake photographs—the medium’s claims that it is “the thing itself,” a real and unfiltered representation unfettered by subjectivity, was never true, but the allure of such fictions is undeniable.


There’s an allure in skepticism, too, which can have the effect of creating additional fictions around photographs. The Sandy Hook truthers, for example, pored over photographs and film of the massacre, searching for visual evidence their own political ideologies. The tabula rasa of the photograph allowed conspiracy theorists to inscribe their own descriptions; like the hoax tweet matching a “real” photograph with a false label, thus replacing pain and death and atrocity with a conspiratorial reading. The dead children and grieving parents, truthers imply, are just too sympathetic to be real.

Those who create the hoax tweets give a variety of reasons for doing so: in-jokes, pure trolling, and revenge. One anonymous Twitter user who originated a much-shared hoax after the Manchester bombing told the Guardian that it was a “competition of who can fool the news.” And indeed, many newspapers and blogs, from the Daily Mail to the New Zealand Herald have mistakenly treated them hoax tweets as real. “When this kind of thing stops happening is when the people or the media start doing basic research. Can’t say that’s a bad deal,” that same troll said.


But the victim hoax is inherently political, as is the event that prompted their creation. “There’s a certain hierarchy to which mass shootings capture the general public eye,” the writer Patrick Blanchfield wrote in 2015, “[...] it seems that what matters most is that such shootings occur in public spaces that enshrine cultural values of education, leisure, consumption, and productivity.” Those public spaces reiterate a series of political, and thus visual, biases about gender, age, class, and race that underpin cultural value. The victim hoax reiterates that value on a smaller scale, visually braiding vulnerability and tragedy within a photograph of a young woman or child. The argument that trolls fuel fake news—that they are “sick” and responsible for sharing falsities when truth should reign supreme, is no doubt true. But such criticism seems to evade the reasons for their success; namely, that they are exploiting deeply held cultural fictions.

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