A district secretary for a Republican state representative in Florida was fired Tuesday after spreading conspiracy theories about the state's school shooting last week.
Benjamin Kelly, former aide to state Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Tampa), falsely claimed that two students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were strategically placed actors.
Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg appeared on CNN and advocated for stronger gun control following the massacre at their school on Valentine's Day. They also called for the National Rifle Association to be disbanded.
But the Tampa Bay Times reported that Kelly sent an email to the newspaper saying: "Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen."
The Times stated it asked for further clarification, and Kelly sent a video of Hogg in California last year, adding, "There is a clip on you tube that shows Mr. Hogg out in California. (I guess he transferred?)"
The Times further reported Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie as saying: "These are absolutely students at Stoneman Douglas. They've been there. I can verify that."
A look at Hogg's YouTube channel shows that he was in fact in California — seemingly for a vacation.
After a Times reporter contacted Rep. Harrison, he released a statement on Twitter.
"I was just made aware that my aide made an insensitive and inappropriate allegation about Parkland students today. I have spoken to him and placed him on leave until we determine an appropriate course of action. I do not share his opinion and he did so without my knowledge."
Later that day, House Speaker Richard Corcoran fired Kelly. He said on Twitter he was "shocked and angry" about Kelly's email.
"On behalf of the entire Florida House, I sincerely apologize to the students targeted and again commend them for their courage through this unspeakable tragedy," he tweeted.
Kelly's Twitter appears to have been deleted altogether. The Washington Post reported that before deleting his account, Kelly tweeted an apology — but later sent a cryptic message:
"And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
The Republican Party's relationship with conspiracy theories is nothing new, though. President Donald Trump cannot resist a good conspiracy; his pre-politics days, campaign journey and time in the White House have all proven that. He pushed the birther movement before he was elected. While campaigning he suggested that Sen. Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And while in office, he suggested that the leaked recording of him bragging about grabbing women's genitals may not be authentic.
Parkland Conspiracy Theories
Kelly is not the only Republican feeding into conspiracy theories surrounding the tragic massacre.
People have brought Hogg into further question because his father worked for the FBI. When appearing on CNN Hogg defended the FBI and placed blame for lack of gun control primarily on President Donald Trump. This gave Republicans all they needed to go after Hogg.
Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest son, reportedly "liked" a tweet from One America News Network (OANN) that suggested Hogg criticized Trump to paint the FBI in a good light.
The tweet could no longer be located on the OANN account but a Twitter account called @TrumpAlert posted a screenshot.
Trump Jr. liked another tweet from an account with the handle @Thomas1774Paine linking to a True Pundit article titled, "VIDEO: Outspoken Trump-Hating School Shooting Survivor is Son of FBI Agent; MSM Helps Prop Up Incompetent Bureau."
"David Hogg is a school shooting survivor in Florida. At least that is what the mainstream media has told us. We wouldn't be surprised by anything involving the FBI at this point," the article reads.
Trump Jr. is not the only one spreading false stories about Hogg. Bradley Blakeman, a Republican media consultant who served in former President George W. Bush's senior White House staff, shared a Gateway Pundit article about Hogg on his Twitter account.
"This kid is a shill. He bragged about the number of interviews he is doing and is playing to the camera," he wrote in part.
The article he shared was called, "EXPOSED: School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist David Hogg's Father in FBI, Appears To Have Been Coached On Anti-Trump Lines [VIDEO]."
Jack Kingston, a Republican former U.S. representative of Georgia, slammed the survivors-turned-activists, who he said on CNN are essentially puppets for "left-wing groups who have an agenda."
He also took to Twitter to question how — and why — the survivors are mobilizing so quickly.
— Jack Kingston (@JackKingston) February 19, 2018
David Clarke, former sheriff of Milwaukee County who on Twitter calls himself an "NRA Benevolent Member," insinuated on Twitter that the Parkland students are being paid off.
The well ORGANIZED effort by Florida school students demanding gun control has GEORGE SOROS' FINGERPRINTS all over it. It is similar to how he hijacked and exploited black people's emotion regarding police use of force incidents into the COP HATING Black Lives Matter movement. pic.twitter.com/XDZ3bcwF6F
— David A. Clarke, Jr. (@SheriffClarke) February 20, 2018
Who Is George Soros?
The right's obsession with relating conspiracy theories to George Soros may seem random, but he has been a target of the right for a long time. The billionaire frequently donates to liberal causes. And he has been accused of paying protesters before. Business Insider reported last year:
"Right-leaning sites like Breitbart and The Washington Times have often claimed that Soros paid protesters at the Women's March and the March for Science. In reality, Soros has been giving money to progressive groups since long before the Trump's election. In 2017, some of them decided to participate in protests."
Despite the cooked-up theories, BI describes Soros as "fairly vocal" regarding his foundation's finances:
"The foundation's site states that it has spent more than $1.6 billion on democratic development in Eastern Europe. As a child, Soros fled persecution from the Nazis and has been instrumental in bringing capitalism to countries within the former Soviet bloc.
"The foundation has also spent more than $1.5 billion on democratic reform — including immigration, criminal justice, and democratic governance — within the US."
Targeting Soros rather than other liberal billionaires is not a coincidence, though — Soros is Jewish. Law professor Mark Fenster told BI "wealth is often used to justify 'fearing and hating the Jews' and, as a result, is also used to disguise anti-Semitism in some conspiracy theorists," the outlet reported.
Salon recently reported:
"The tendency of right-wingers, especially of the Trumpian variety, to pin everything they don't like on Soros — a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust that was justified by similar conspiracy theories — is a chilling reminder of how much these kind of fringe fascistic ideas have been mainstreamed in American conservatism over the past decade. But what is even more troubling, [Media Matters President Angelo] Carusone noted, is how long right-wing pundits have gotten away with demonizing Soros without being called out for trafficking in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories."