Minutes after media outlets identified the gunman who killed seven people in West Texas on Saturday, a Twitter account that appears to have been computer-generated began spreading baseless information linking the shooter to Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, the Associated Press reports. “The Odessa Shooter’s name is Seth Ator, a Democrat Socialist who had a Beto sticker on his truck,” said the post, which also appeared on Facebook. No such sticker was found on Ator’s truck on either a stolen mail truck that Ator used during his rampage, said Sgt. Oscar Villarreal, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman.
The groundless conjecture after the shooting was spread by thousands online and retweeted by Anthony Shaffer, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer and a member of President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign advisory board. The breakneck speed of the misinformation — and just how far it spread — illustrates an eagerness to blame such events on political ideologies, regardless of whether the facts support it. It’s an indication of how difficult it will be for campaigns to combat virulent falsehoods ahead of a 2020 presidential campaign that could be full of them. Social media users are unlikely to take the time to research misinformation they encounter online. Even when campaigns try to stamp out potential misinformation, voters might not see or believe the corrections, said Rita Kirk, a communications professor at Southern Methodist University. “A whole lot of people are just living their lives. They don’t have time to go and fact-check a statement,” Kirk said. “Truth has been the victim of social media campaigns.”