Conspiracy Theories Around Mass Shootings, Tragedies Affect Families Left Behind

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Joaquin Oliver, 17, had been dead for only a few hours when corners of the internet decided the mass shooting in which he was killed hadn’t happened at all or, if it had happened, was a planned attack meant to facilitate gun control legislation. Users were split on the details of the conspiracy. Some argued about whether any victims had actually died, which of the surviving students were hired crisis actors, and what role the FBI played in the attack, but the through line was the same: Whatever had happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it wasn’t simply a school shooting in a country where gun deaths have become an everyday occurrence. It was, they insisted, part of a complex conspiracy in which each player must be examined for the truth to be found.

Anonymous Reddit and 4chan users weren’t the only people vowing to get to the bottom of what really happened in Parkland, Florida. On the day of the shooting, noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones used his Infowars show to question whether the shooting was a “false flag attack.” Less than a week after the tragedy that claimed 17 lives, Donald Trump Jr., son of then president Trump, “liked” two tweets that seemed to promote the false narrative of FBI involvement because surviving student David Hogg’s father was an FBI agent. In the ensuing months, the theories would expand and warp, spread by people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who would go on to become the first open supporter of Q Anon to win a seat in Congress.

Manuel Oliver, father of Parkland victim Joaquin, doesn’t feel the need to prove his son died on February 14, 2018. He doesn’t care if you think the shooting was a “false flag” planned with ulterior motives or if you believe survivors were crisis actors. “I’m a busy activist who represents a 17-year-old kid that lost his life because he was shot four times with an AR-15,” Oliver told Teen Vogue. “My son was destroyed, literally destroyed. His brain exploded because of the power that an AR-15 has. I don’t have to prove that to anyone. I’m already dealing with it and I’m very busy trying to protect other fathers [from] going through the same pain.”

Oliver doesn’t let himself get consumed by the conspiracy theories surrounding Parkland and other mass shootings because he has more important work to do and he sees the theories as a “cheap, dirty, political strategy.” The way he and his wife, Patricia, lost Joaquin, Oliver said, was the worst possible scenario. Next to the depth of mourning him, conspiracy theories spread on internet forums or in the halls of Congress seem paltry and inconsequential. The family’s pain is so vast it is untouched by lies. And Oliver isn’t fighting against conspiracy theorists, he’s fighting to stop gun violence through constant activism like the publication of Patricia’s book, Joaquin’s First School Shooting. He’s gotten arrested at House hearings on gun laws and interrupted President Biden during a speech at the White House. He has spoken out against governor Ron DeSantis (R–FL) — who recently signed a bill allowing concealed carry without a permit — and made connections with other parents who have lost children in mass shootings. This is how Oliver parents now.

“I refuse to stop being a dad,” he said. “I am Joaquin’s dad. I have to represent Joaquin and I have to protect my son, regardless of where he is right now. That’s my son. I’m still here. Joaquin’s dad is still here. I will bring my son’s name to every platform, every audience. I know what my kid wanted, what he was dreaming about. And I’m going to make it happen because I am what he is now.”

The proliferation of conspiracy theories on social media has complicated the grieving process for those who lost loved ones in public mass tragedies, adding a sick new dimension to their pain. Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old son, Noah, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was forced to live in hiding after receiving death threats when Jones and other conspiracists spread rumors about whether he and his child existed. Pozner released the medical examiner’s report of his son’s death, which did nothing to deter conspiracy theorists. However, in 2022, Jones filed for bankruptcy after being ordered by the court to pay more than $1.4 billion in damages to Sandy Hook families for calling the shooting an “inside job” and a “government operation.”

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