The internet always floods with rumors and theories after a tragedy, and the aftermath of the Orlando shooting has predictably been no different. In the immediate absence of a clear and coherent narrative, people are all too willing to invent their own versions.
On Facebook, certain skeptics have circulated memes that allege three shooters attacked the Pulse nightclub. On YouTube, a viral video implies a link between Omar Mateen and an Iranian imam. On Twitter, rumors floated that Mateen used the gay dating app Jack’d and that a screenshot proved so.
And in more obscure corners of the Internet, a surprising (but not unusual!) number of people have insisted that the whole thing was a “false flag” attack — a hoax.
The people who propagate these rumors, the last sort of rumors especially, often claim that the mainstream media never listens to or addresses them. And that is largely true, because — to someone who has just dropped everything, hopped a flight to Florida and spent three days interviewing traumatized witnesses — the notion that the whole thing might be made-up is patently ridiculous.
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Still, we get that people have a lot of questions and suspicions after a tragedy, particularly when so many details remain unknown. So we asked a group of Washington Post reporters, both in Washington and on the ground in Florida, to address some of the more popular rumors and conspiracy theories currently going viral on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Here are their explanations.
There are a few Facebook posts going around claiming that there were two or three shooters, or that there were two shooters and one guy blocking the exit doors. How do we know there was only one shooter? And what would cause eyewitnesses to think there were more than that?
Matt Zapotosky: Law enforcement officials have said repeatedly that Mateen was the only shooter, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer reiterated that point Thursday morning. Dyer said some witnesses might be confused because of the volume of gunshots they heard or saw.
Mark Berman: During and after many shooting rampages, there are often conflicting accounts about the number of shooters. Part of this is because things are chaotic and terrifying, and eyewitnesses are often recounting what they saw while running for their lives. People also often see and hear gunfire in different locations during shooting rampages, making these witnesses and the police who are responding unsure if it’s the same shooter moving around or multiple people. (It is almost always a lone shooter, according to FBI research.)
The Orlando police have said there was only one shooter here, and while they have not offered evidence, investigators so far have said nothing about any evidence any other people were involved.
A follow-up: If there was only one shooter, why was it so difficult for people to escape? There were several exits, he couldn’t have blocked all of them.
Zapotosky: Police and the FBI have yet to provide a thorough accounting of this, though they’re expected to give more information (in coming days). I talked to one witness who said a number of people did escape, though it was a chaotic herd in which getting around was difficult. Another witness I talked to said he stayed underneath a table voluntarily, fearful that an escape attempt might lead to his demise.
The club must have had armed security guards and CCTV cameras. Why didn’t security stop Mateen? And where are those videos?
Zapotosky: An Orlando police officer working as a security guard in uniform at the club was the first to encounter and exchange fire with Mateen. It is unclear — at least to me — what other security the club had, and what level of weaponry they possessed. Asked about security footage at a briefing earlier, Orlando Police Chief John Mina said it was uncertain as to whether it existed or what it showed.
Recently, a website called the Tribunist posted a story titled “When You Hear Someone Call an AR-15 an Assault Rifle, Show Them This.” It claims the gun is not technically an assault rifle because it’s only semiautomatic, and that the media has grossly exaggerated both how many rounds it can fire and how large its ammunition is. (Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX, which is similar to the AR-15.) The story’s getting a lot of Facebook action.
Are the AR-15 and other rifles like it assault rifles? And how dangerous are they?
Christopher Ingraham: Strictly speaking, the only “true” assault rifles are rifles capable of automatic fire — they shoot continuously when you hold down the trigger. Those rifles have not been available for civilian use since 1986. The civilian versions of the AR-15, and other military-style rifles like it, are only capable of semiautomatic fire: when you pull the trigger, a single bullet is fired.
In all other respects, the guns are identical. They fire the same bullets, at the same velocity. Their magazines hold the same number of rounds. For this reason, the term “assault rifle” is often used to describe all military-style semiautomatic or automatic rifles by researchers, lawmakers, pollsters and the general public.
Gun control advocates dislike this imprecision, preferring to use terms like “modern sporting rifle” to describe the civilian AR-15 and its cousins. But they are likely fighting a fruitless uphill battle: Military-style semiautomatic rifles have been popularly known as “assault rifles” at least since the days of the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, and that doesn’t appear to be changing.
Lots of people have also questioned the designation of the Orlando attacks as the “deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.” They point to incidents like the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, where at least 150 Sioux people died. Why are we describing it this way given that history?
Lori Montgomery: The modern definition of “mass shooting” is more than four people killed in a single incident by a criminal gunman (or, rarely, gunmen or gunwomen). Wounded Knee was a military action.
There are obviously a lot of questions remaining about Mateen’s motivations and the shooter himself: Among other things, social media users have speculated that Mateen was gay because there’s a screenshot going around that appears to show his profile on a site called Jack’d. Was Mateen on Jack’d? Was he gay? What do we know for sure at this point, if anything?
Zapotosky: We don’t know definitive answers to those questions. The FBI is exploring the claims that have been made publicly about Mateen and dating apps.
Abby Ohlheiser: And as far as Jack’d is concerned, the story is not yet clear-cut. A spokesperson for the dating app told us that they had no definitive confirmation that Mateen had a profile on their site, although it is possible that he used the app anonymously. There’s also some pretty good evidence that, whether Mateen was on the app or not, a screenshot floating around that appears to show his profile on Jack’d is a hoax.
According to Jack’d, whoever took the screenshot showing Mateen’s alleged presence on Jack’d was viewing a photograph that they’d uploaded to the app themselves, and not one that was received from another user. “The reason we can tell it’s not a screenshot of someone else’s profile,” Kevin Letourneau, spokesperson for Jack’d, told us “is there would be a report button visible.” In the screenshot, provided to The Post and other media outlets, there’s no “report” button at all.
An April 6 YouTube video of the Iranian imam Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar speaking at the Husseini Islamic Center in Sanford, Florida, has gone hugely viral this week, earning more than 2 million views in just a couple days. In the video, Sekaleshfar says that killing gay people is a “compassionate” thing to do.
How representative is that of the Muslim view in general? Is there anything to suggest a connection between Mateen and the Sanford Islamic Center, besides their religion?
Michelle Boorstein: It’s unlikely that the Afghan-American assassin was a member at an Iranian mosque. Muslims are the most racially and culturally diverse U.S. faith group, and often mosques are made up of Muslims from similar regions/sects.
Islam’s teachings against gay relationships are not significantly different from those of other large faith groups, such as Christianity. However, outside the United States, Muslims tend to be likely to embrace traditional views against gay equality, and many in the relatively small U.S. Muslim population tend to be just a generation or few from immigrating. Thus a 2015 Pew poll showed U.S. Muslims among the least accepting — 45 percent said homosexuality should be accepted by society. This was far lower than Catholics, Jews, atheists and mainline Protestants, but higher than evangelicals and Mormons (36 percent) and similar to historically black denominations (51 percent).
The scripture of Islam, like that of all faiths, contains complex and contradictory passages, and is interpreted differently by Muslims everywhere. It also, like other faiths, doesn’t describe marriage-like relationships, which is why more liberal Muslim scholars push for it to be reinterpreted.
A huge factor in discussing what is “Islam” is that the faith — like Buddhism or Hinduism — in this part of the world has virtually no institutional hierarchy. There is not only no pope but no major accepted institutions or groups (like the Southern Baptist Convention) that can be said to be followed as the true voice or authority in Islam.
There was also a major mass casualty drill in Orlando last October, in which a mock shooter blew himself up and “injured” 100 volunteer actors to help nurses train. Conspiracy theorists love casualty drills. Can you explain to the good people of Facebook what relationship this drill had to Sunday’s shooting?
Zapotosky: Nothing, so far as I know.
(There really is nothing at all linking the two events, beside the shared city. Details of the October exercise were published very widely.)
Last, and very least: After tragedies like this one, thousands of internet goons inevitably come out of the woodwork to claim that the whole thing was a hoax. They’ve said that it’s not physically possible to reload a semiautomatic rifle as many times as Mateen must’ve done, and that they’re suspicious why there isn’t any cellphone footage. Some conspiracy theorists also insist Mateen was working for the CIA or FBI, since he’d had contact with the agency before.
Can you address those individual questions — are there other, more logical explanations? And can you comment on the “false flag” theory more generally?
Ingraham: Do we have accurate info on how many rounds were fired, and in how long of a time period? Regardless, the weapon he had used 30-round magazines. It takes just just a few seconds to swap magazines. Manuals for similar weapons state an effective firing rate of 45 rounds per minute, but if he was just spraying around and didn’t care about accuracy, he could have been shooting considerably faster than that - there is allegedly audio of him shooting 24 rounds in 9 seconds.
Zapotosky: There does exist some news footage of the immediate aftermath. I’m no gun expert, but I’m not exactly sure what is meant by it being “physically impossible” to reload a gun more than a certain number of times. Media has interviewed countless law enforcement officials, hospital staffers, witnesses, survivors and victims’ family members. Are they all in on the hoax? Paid actors? That’s absurd.
Berman: Wait, the conspiracy theorists think that Mateen was working for the FBI? So: The FBI wanted him to carry out an attack that would then cast them in a bad light for interviewing him multiple times and failing to stop him ...?
No, the argument is that the FBI recruited him to commit an attack so that President Barack Obama could take everyone’s guns afterward.
Joel Achenbach: Classic false flag operation. (Note: He is being sarcastic.) Has anyone tied the “Voice” shooting to the club shooting to the gator attack?
(Not that we’re aware of, but it’s bound to happen.)