Pulse Shooting Third Anniversary: Fake News and False Narratives

The Associated Press
AP Photo/John Raoux
JOHN HAYWARD

The Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, was one of the most intensely covered, but poorly understood, events in recent history.

Both in the heat of the moment and for weeks afterward, details of the case were misreported and misinterpreted. Deliberate efforts to manipulate the narrative for political purposes, a mad dash to interview anyone who claimed to have information about the incident, and the secrecy surrounding the ongoing investigation all played roles in distorting the news.

As with all such events, some false stories emerged from the chaotic and frightening hours of the shooting and its immediate aftermath, including the perhaps inevitable “second shooter” rumors.

Virtually every mass casualty event is followed by rumors of additional participants who escaped capture by the police or were allegedly captured and held secretly to keep the public from knowing about them. Sometimes these rumors spread because eyewitnesses become confused or disagree in their descriptions of the attacker, and the police are compelled to investigate the possibility of different malevolent actors moving around the crime scene.

Rumors of multiple shooters in the Pulse attack were so persistent that the Orlando Police felt it necessary to issue a statement confirming that Omar Mateen was the only attacker and he was killed during a gunfight with police.

Another persistent rumor, possibly inspired by the shocking body count of 49 dead and 68 wounded, was that “friendly fire” from police officers responding to the incident killed some of the victims. Forensics technicians were still trying to sort out the bullets fired during the gun battle with Mateen a year later.

The authorities did not casually rule out the possibility of friendly fire, given the high volume of gunfire exchanged in the incident – almost 400 rounds were fired in total, according to prosecutors – but they argued Mateen was ultimately responsible for every shot fired.

In February 2019, the state attorney for Orlando said there is no evidence any of the bullets fired by police killed or wounded any of the Pulse victims. The detailed account released by the state attorney’s office combined three years of investigative work to produce a harrowing account of Mateen’s attack and the police response, with a few close calls between responding officers and terrified civilians, but found the officers’ actions were “reasonable and justifiable.”

“Those officers faced one of the most difficult and complex hostage active-shooter, domestic-terrorism-type incidents in the history of the United States, as far as I’m concerned, and their actions are justified,” Orange County Sheriff John Mina said when the results of the investigation were released.

The Pulse shooting inevitably produced its share of conspiracy theories on the Internet, from accusations of “crisis actors” deployed to shape media coverage to “false flag” theories that painted Mateen as the puppet of special interests across the political spectrum. One of the more persistent theories held that the murder of singer and TV show contestant Christina Grimmie in Orlando was some sort of practice run for the Pulse attack two days later. Grimmie’s killing was, in fact, unrelated to Mateen’s rampage.

Confusion and disinformation left the realm of conspiracy blogs and entered the mainstream media during the long struggle to understand Mateen’s motives for the attack. Mateen clearly identified himself as a follower of the Islamic State and its “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during the attack and said his rampage was intended as revenge for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, but this fact was obscured and misrepresented so Mateen could be recast as an anti-gay bigot, or perhaps even a repressed homosexual himself.

The status of the Pulse as a gay nightclub led to immediate assumptions that Mateen’s goal was slaughtering homosexuals, an assumption widely reinforced throughout the media after his father told NBC News his son once became “very angry” at the sight of “two men kissing.” As far as NBC was concerned, Mateen’s motives were a toss-up between “terrorism, homophobia, or both.”

Reports spread like wildfire that Mateen was a devoted user of the gay dating app Grindr. A mysterious disguised man named “Miguel” began making the media rounds claiming he met Mateen through Grindr and had sex with him, and also observed him having sex with other men, including at least one who was HIV-positive.

Two other gay Orlando residents named Cord Cedeno and Kevin West surfaced a few days after the shooting to claim Mateen flirted with them on Grindr and a similar app called Jack’d. Cedeno claimed he “instantly blocked” Mateen’s messages because he was “very creepy,” while West claimed he corresponded with Mateen for almost a year and bumped into him on the street just hours before the Pulse massacre.

Mateen’s ex-wife Sitora Yusufly, who was married to him for three months in 2009, threw some fuel on the fire by saying in a Brazilian television interview after the shooting that she noticed “gay tendencies” in Mateen and his father once called him gay in her presence. She claimed she was told to keep this information secret by the FBI.

Numerous other individuals joined the frenzy, claiming to have cruised gay bars and visited the Pulse itself with Mateen. A local drag queen named Chris Callen came forward to claim Mateen had been frequenting Pulse for three years before the attack. Callen and his husband Ty Smith said Mateen once pulled a knife on them at the club. Several other Pulse regulars claimed to have seen him there, drunk and belligerent.

None of these claims were borne out by the investigation in any way. 

Almost two years after the attack, during the trial of Mateen’s current wife Noor Salman, investigators revealed there was no evidence Mateen had ever visited Pulse before the fateful night or used any gay dating app. His browser activity indicated a great deal of interest in the Islamic State and terrorism, but none in homosexuality.

Mateen evidently chose the Pulse club as his target at the last minute, after abandoning plans for a more difficult attack on Disney World. Forensic computer experts testified he found Pulse with a Google search for “Orlando nightclubs” after he left his home to conduct the attack, and appears to have considered and rejected a few other clubs before hitting Pulse. Investigators said there was no clear evidence he knew Pulse was a gay nightclub before he entered the building – in fact, a Pulse security guard recalled a bewildered Mateen asking where all the women were shortly before he opened fire.

The media should have been far more suspicious of the wild stories and the agendas behind them: Mateen’s father wanted to distance his son’s actions from Islam, gay activists wanted the Pulse to become an iconic “homophobic hate crime” for the ages, some of the fanciful claims of Mateen’s repressed homosexuality were obvious bids for media attention, and the Obama administration very much preferred to have the media talking about anti-gay hate crimes instead of Islamic State terrorism.

And yet, it remains an article of faith that Mateen’s horrifying attack on the Pulse nightclub was a supreme act of homophobia, and the faithful are prepared to launch vicious attacks on anyone who suggests otherwise. Conspiracy theorists who raved about “crisis actors” and gay groups commissioning the mass murder of homosexuals to generate sympathy for themselves have been rightly shunned, but conspiracy theories about a closeted gay shooter acting as the avatar of toxic American masculinity are not denounced or deplatformed.

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