Alex Leary, Kirby Wilson — The Buzz Feb 20, 2018
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the full version of events that occurred Tuesday since the original post about how Parkland students were coming under attack for their outspokenness. Hours later, an aide to a state representative sent an unsolicited email to a reporter that played on a conspiracy theory.
It bubbled up from the darkest online corners then began to take off: conspiracy theories about Parkland students who’ve spent the past week on TV demanding action on the gun violence that killed 17 and reawakened a national debate.
By late Tuesday afternoon, the conspiracy climbed to a new level when an aide to state Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, was fired after emailing a Tampa Bay Times reporter with a stunning assertion: “Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.”
Here's the email. I asked for more information to back up the claim and was sent another email that linked to a YouTube conspiracy video. pic.twitter.com/VRSVOcjj3E
— Alex Leary (@learyreports) February 20, 2018
Benjamin Kelly referred to a picture attached to a Times story, posted online hours earlier, about how Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students were drawing attacks for their outspokenness. The picture showed David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez speaking on CNN.
Asked for backup to his claim, Kelly sent another email — again from his official myfloridahouse.gov account — that included a link to a conspiracy video on YouTube. The video showed Hogg in a news clip from California over a dispute with a lifeguard involving a boogie board. Hogg had posted a video of the confrontation with the lifeguard on YouTube and it “went viral,” a news reporter said. Now, conspiracy theorists have questioned what Hogg was doing in another state, some branding him a “crisis actor.”
Wrote Kelly to the Times: “There is a clip on youtube that shows Mr Hogg out in California. (I guess he transferred?)”
Reaction on social media was strident.
Jaclyn Corin, the school’s 11th-grade class president, wrote: “We are KIDS — not actors. We are KIDS that have grown up in Parkland all of our lives. We are KIDS who feared for our lives while someone shot up our school. We are KIDS working to prevent this from happening again. WE ARE KIDS.”
We are KIDS – not actors. We are KIDS that have grown up in Parkland all of our lives. We are KIDS who feared for our lives while someone shot up our school. We are KIDS working to prevent this from happening again. WE ARE KIDS.
— Jaclyn Corin (@JaclynCorin) February 20, 2018
Reached by phone in Tallahassee, Rep. Harrison told a reporter he was looking into the matter and that the email should not have been sent. Not long after, he released a statement: “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.”
Kelly, 61, was subsequently fired by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who oversees all House employees.
On Twitter, Kelly said he “made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting. This was not my responsibility. I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland.”