This story is part of a KXAN series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are convening a month after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.
UVALDE, Texas (KXAN) — Moments after Gov. Greg Abbott identified 18-year-old Salvador Ramos as the shooter who killed at least 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School, his alleged Instagram account was deactivated. But that hasn’t stopped a slew of fake accounts popping up and posing as the shooter.
More than a dozen accounts presenting themselves as the shooter or mimicking the shooter’s alleged social media account handle appeared on search Wednesday afternoon.
KXAN found images circulating of what appeared to be Ramos on an Instagram account, including one of him posing with a rifle magazine in his lap. We are working to verify the authenticity of these images.
This surge in fake accounts highlights the added layer of danger and complexity social media has added to an already tragic situation, said Dr. Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of Texas State’s Texas School Safety Center.
With the pervasiveness and instantaneous nature of social media, law enforcement and school personnel have the added challenge of a “contagion effect,” or taking inspiration from a mass shooting and the desire to replicate it.
“Sometimes these individuals are looking for notoriety, fame out of this,” she said. “And so it’s a risk that we take when we have this highly publicized through the media, and as you know, our youth are tapped in 24/7 to social media and what they’re hearing.”
As for the fake accounts, Martinez-Prather said it can be a combination of factors that would lead someone to make a fake account posing as the shooter.
“Students or even adults [are] setting up fake accounts and threats, sometimes seen as a joke to be funny, sometimes credible threats,” she said. “And so it’s really important that school districts take every threat seriously, even if they don’t think there’s any credibility to it, because it just takes that one.”
During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott said the shooter posted three messages on Facebook prior to and after shooting his grandmother, as well as previewing his planned attack at the school. However, a correction from a Meta communications spokesperson said on Twitter these were direct messages and not visible to the public.
“The messages Gov. Abbott described were private one-to-one text messages that were discovered after the terrible tragedy occurred,” Meta communications employee Andy Stone tweeted. “We are closely cooperating with law enforcement in their ongoing investigation.”
A separate spokesperson for Meta told KXAN the Uvalde shooting has been designated a “violating event,” and the company plans to remove any accounts affiliated with the shooter or an account that supports the identified suspect. Meta is the parent company of both Facebook and Instagram.
“On copycat accounts specifically, we are removing these accounts and implementing measures to prevent users from creating additional accounts — we have teams in place working across Meta to find, remove, and block content that praises, supports, or represents the suspect or this horrific tragedy,” the statement continued.
The Texas School Safety Center provides a digital threat assessment toolkit to help school district personnel identify the credibility of a social media threat. This includes means of telling whether a photo posted online is a stock image or a legitimate one and how to track “leakage” — or threats made on social media — prior to a tragedy.
“We’re not here to train our educators to be social media experts, but to have enough savvy to be able to keep up with the current trends,” she said.
For people with the investigative expertise to find and vet possible threats, she said social media is a critical resource to help thwart potentially violent acts in the works. But as social media’s influence has expanded and evolved, it also can become an epicenter of misinformation and deceptive rumors that create additional chaos during crises.
“With a lot of these threats being made, whether credible or not, it certainly adds to that element of making the situation a little bit more complex,” she said.
And misinformation has already woven its way into the Uvalde shooting. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) tweeted in a since-deleted tweet that the shooter was “a transsexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos,” per PolitiFact. Elements of that claim were debunked by Abbott himself, who said in a press conference Tuesday Ramos was a resident of Uvalde.
In a follow-up press conference Wednesday, Abbott said the shooter had no known criminal history and the cause for motive is unknown.
Rumors complicate already difficult scenarios, Martinez-Prather said, and require careful vetting and the right expertise to help detail fiction from reality.
“It can certainly create another element of chaos in the beginning of an emergency, misinformation and also be a tool that can be exploited in the aftermath of these events,” she said.