Sam, a transgender woman who lives in Georgia, said that on Tuesday evening, Reddit users started commenting on a photo of her that she had shared on the platform three months ago.
They told her the photo was being shared on 4chan, a forum website with little moderation, and people were saying that it showed the shooter who killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. The shooter, identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was killed on the scene by police.
Sam, 20, who asked to go by her first name to protect her privacy and safety, told NBC News that the photo and others were taken from her personal Instagram page, and that she’s faced harassment and threats as the image has spread.
“This isn’t the first time I was harassed, but it is the first time I’ve been accused of murder,” she said.
The false claims started shortly after news of the shooting first broke. A photo of Sam was posted to 4chan on Tuesday afternoon, in a post that began with “here’s the shooter’s reddit” before linking to her Reddit account and posting a transphobic slur. While some users said they did not believe the photo was of the shooter, other users posted new threads soon afterward, using pictures with fewer details of Sam’s face from her profile.
She said she’s feeling annoyed more than anything: “I’m more worried about the families of the victims of the attack,” she told NBC News.
Social media users and trolls on 4chan, Twitter and Facebook are using Sam’s photos and images of at least two other transgender women to spread the baseless theory that the shooter was transgender. In some cases, they have created collages that place the women’s photos alongside images from an Instagram page believed to have belonged to the shooter.
The claims were spread by some prominent conservatives on Tuesday.
Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, said of the shooter in a since-deleted tweet, “It’s a transsexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos.” Gosar has not returned a request for comment.
One of Sam’s photos was shared by the Young Conservatives of Southern Indiana Facebook page, which has more than 4,000 followers.
Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who was successfully sued for defamation for falsely claiming the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax, also echoed the misinformation that the Uvalde shooting suspect was trans. Representatives for Jones’ website did not immediately respond for comment.
Conservative personality Candace Owens joined in on Wednesday, referencing “cross-dressing” photos she said she’d seen of the suspect. Owens has previously shared misinformation in her feeds and unsuccessfully sued Facebook in 2021 after the company added a fact-checking warning to one of her posts.
The photos that social media users are claiming show the shooter are actually of three different transgender women wearing skirts, including Sam, according to Trans Safety Network, a U.K.-based group that monitors online threats made against the transgender community. The group wrote in a post that all three women have confirmed they are alive.
In an effort to debunk the theory, Sam shared a photo of herself standing in front of a transgender Pride flag on Reddit Tuesday evening and wrote, “It’s not me, I don’t even live in Texas.” In response to a comment on the post, she said she just wants “to live without being attacked when I leave my house.” She also shared another photo of herself holding a piece of paper with the date on it.
She encouraged people to be careful about what they see online.
“Transphobic people exist and people are quick to blame someone for terrible things instead of looking for the truth about what actually happened,” Sam told NBC News.
Despite the fact that the posts including Sam’s photos violate Twitter and Facebook’s misinformation policies, the platforms have done little to combat the emerging false narrative.
A review of posts on Twitter and Facebook Wednesday morning found numerous tweets and posts using Sam’s image and labeling her as the shooter. In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson said, “In line with our hateful conduct policy, we will require the removal of Tweets that share misleading claims about the identity of the perpetrator with the intent to incite fear or spread fearful stereotypes about a protected category.” Additionally, the spokesperson said, “In line with our synthetic and manipulated media policy, we will require Tweets to be removed if they contain media that present false or misleading context surrounding the identity of the perpetrator.”
A Meta spokesperson said the company is removing content that violates its Bullying & Harassment policy, which forbids content “in which criminal allegations pose off-line harm to the named individual.”
“They’ve been relying on me and others to report the misinformation before doing anything,” Sam said.
Some advocates condemned the basely theory that the shooter was transgender.
“This has GOT to stop,” Erin Reed, a trans advocate, said on Twitter. She went on to reference investigations that Texas opened into the parents of some transgender youths in March following a directive from Gov. Greg Abbott that ordered state agencies to investigate claims of parents providing gender-affirming medical care to minors.
“A sitting congressman just spread a lie about the Texas shooter to pin it on transgender people spread by troll sites, in a state where they are spending more time banning trans kids than they are spending regulating guns,” she said.
Another advocate, Charlotte Clymer, criticized Gosar and said he “owes the public an apology.”
“It’s pathetic that @DrPaulGosar sought to exploit this horrific tragedy for anti-trans propaganda,” she said. “There is zero evidence that the shooter is transgender.”
Reporter and MSNBC contributor Katelyn Burns said this isn’t the first time “right wing liars have tried to falsely claim a mass shooter was trans.” She referenced an article she wrote in April 2018 following a shooting at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, in which three people were wounded.
The shooter died by suicide by the time police arrived at the scene, and afterward, some far-right websites and conservative critics speculated, without evidence, that the shooter was transgender.
Similarly, Burns noted that following a 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that left three people dead, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shared the unsubstantiated theory that the shooter was transgender after a far-right outlet reported that he registered to vote as a woman.
“Well, it’s also been reported that he was registered as an independent and a woman and transgendered leftist activist, if that’s what he is,” Cruz said during a campaign event in 2015, according to audio obtained by the Texas Tribune.
Cruz’s campaign later told news outlets that he was trying to make a point that there were still many unknown details about the shooter.