Welcome, Parkland shooting survivors, to the ugly world of politics in 2018.
In the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., some of the most powerful testimonies have come from the teenagers who survived the rampage. They have repeatedly detailed their harrowing experience to national news networks, many calling for stricter gun control laws while decrying President Trump for not doing enough to protect students. Others have wept with grief while telling their stories again and again.
The students have become a mobilizing force unlike any seen after previous mass shootings, planning marches and rallies in Florida and Washington — all while mourning the friends they’ve so recently lost.
They have also become a target of right-wing smears and innuendo.
Some prominent figures in the right-wing media are suggesting that the students are making it all up, or that the children are paid actors or that their talking points have been manufactured by public relations experts on the left.
An aide to a Florida legislator was even fired Tuesday after claiming two survivors who spoke to CNN were not students, but instead “actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.”
While these claims have no basis, they spread quickly in conservative circles on social media and among popular right-wing commentators.
The students proved quite capable of defending themselves Tuesday.
“I am not a crisis actor. I’m somebody that had to witness this and live through this and I continue to have to do that,” 17-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior David Hogg told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “The fact that some of the students at Stoneman Douglas high school … are showing more maturity and political action than many of our elected officials is a testament to how disgusting and broken our political system is right now in America. But we’re trying to fix that.”
He was quickly backed up by fellow students. Sarah Chadwick, for example, tweeted that Hogg “can’t act to save his life,” adding that the fact some people think he is being paid “is hilarious.”
Hogg, the high school’s student news director, has been among the most vocal students. He interviewed his classmates during the shooting and has spoken passionately to various news outlets in the days since.
But right-wing media websites, such as Infowars, have accused Hogg of becoming an “overnight celebrity” of the left.
Hogg has described his father as a retired FBI agent — a detail that right-wing commentators have jumped on. An Infowars story called it a “peculiar coincidence” that his father is a retired FBI agent, as “the FBI has come under fire for not preventing the Parkland massacre despite being warned about suspected killer Nikolas Cruz repeatedly beforehand.”
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. liked two tweets disseminating conspiracy theories about Hogg. One tweet linked to a story in Gateway Punditthat accused Hogg’s father of coaching his son in peddling “anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation,” claiming the FBI is using Hogg as its pawn.
The other tweet linked to a story in True Pundit that described Hogg as “the kid who has been running his mouth” about Trump and Republicans. “If Hogg knew the shooter would snap — as he and other students have professed — perhaps he could have told his father about it,” the story charged.
These conspiracy theories attacking the FBI parallel similar rhetoric from right-wing groups — and Trump — who have claimed the FBI is tainted with political, anti-Trump bias.
Gateway Pundit and Infowars both criticized Hogg and other students for smiling for a photograph on the set of a CBS interview, claiming that instead of grieving, they are “acting and being feted like rock stars.”
Infowars’ attack was no surprise. Its founder, Alex Jones, claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, in which 20 small children and six adults were killed, was a false flag operation perpetrated by the United States government. “Sandy Hook is a synthetic completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” he said on his radio show in January 2015.
Some, such as conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, mocked the Florida teenagers. “How interesting to hear students who can’t support themselves for one day giving us lectures about American social policy,” he tweeted early on Tuesday. It was liked more than 22,000 times.
A few hours later, he tweeted a video interview with 17-year-old Delaney Tarr, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who has emerged as one of the loudest voices calling for gun control in the wake of the shooting. In the video, she directly addressed Trump and requested greater restrictions on the purchase of semiautomatic weapons, such as mental health checks.
D’Souza said Tarr appeared “coached and also a bit deranged,” adding that Trump “should ignore these media-manufactured theatrics.”
When the Florida House rejected a motion to consider a bill that would ban the sale of assault rifles, he tweeted, “Adults 1, kids 0.”
He followed that with a photo of students reacting to the decision. The students are stone-faced in the photograph, and one has a hand to her mouth, as if to hold in crying.
“Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs,” D’Souza tweeted. Hours later, he added: “Genuine grief I can empathize with. But grief organized for the cameras — politically orchestrated grief — strikes me as phony & inauthentic.”
Armond White, the National Review’s film critic, drummed up a Trumpian nickname for the students: “Parkland Puppets.”
“Why their ubiquitous presence on TV news shows? Who’s their publicist?” he tweeted, along with a photograph of Hogg and 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez. “Obviously not just being picked up off the street, no 16-year-old has quick access to network news producers. Clearly, some PR exec is handling these Alt-Left kids.” (Neither student pictured is 16 years old.)
Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host disgraced by a sexual abuse scandal, criticized the media for broadcasting interviews with teenagers “who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure.”
“The national press believes it is their job to destroy the Trump administration by any means necessary,” he wrote on his website. “So if the media has to use kids to do that, they’ll use kids.”
Kingston then appeared on CNN’s “New Day” Tuesday and doubled down on his remarks.
“Do we really think — and I say this sincerely — do we really think that 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” Kingston asked, adding, “They probably do not have the logistical ability to plan a nationwide rally without it being hijacked by groups that already had the preexisting anti-gun agenda.”
The show’s co-host Alisyn Camerota fiercely disagreed.
“I talked to these kids before they knew the body count of how many of their friends had been killed. No one had talked to them yet,” Camerota said. “They hadn’t been indoctrinated by some left-wing group. They were motivated from what they saw and what they endured.”
Brandon Abzug, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior who survived the shooting, then appeared on CNN and said of the former congressman’s comments, “I think it’s very despicable…. To say that just because we’re young we can’t make a difference is not right, and he should apologize for that.”
Kingston began backtracking on Twitter. “Not only do I respect their right to protest & their resolve to look for answers, I admire it,” he wrote. He added, “That’s why it’s sad local gun control activists would hijack the tragedy to drive their own agenda.”