The conspiracy theory that won't end: 'Enough is enough'

Christal Hayes

When Emma MacDonald saw the tragedy unfolding at a high school in Florida, she felt a sense of dread.

She knew what would come next: the same lie that's been spreading for years.

It's like clockwork. New life is given to the hurtful conspiracy with each tragedy. Each time MacDonald, of Boston, feels to blame because it's her face that is used to promote one of the more popular conspiracy theories over the last few years.

"Enough is enough," said MacDonald, 25. "This needs to go away."

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It started with a photo of MacDonald breaking down in tears during a vigil after the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Conspiracy theorists took the image and pasted it alongside other crying women after mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Co. — and the latest addition in Parkland, Fla.

All are white, thin and brunette. Most are crying. The aim is to try to prove those grieving after the tragedies were actually the same person and a staged actress paid to respond to crisis around the county. The collage has been used after the Manchester Arena bombing and a 2015 shooting at a college in Roseburg, Oregon that left 10, including the gunman, dead.

"When you're short on crisis actors," the photo is labeled, which quickly went viral on social media after last week's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The post didn't include that the woman added from Parkland, Fla. wasn't a student at all but actually CBS producer Gisela Margarita Perez, who was posing for a photo with student survivors before an interview.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. But the internet and social media has made them even more accessible.

Studies have shown people tend to believe even far-flung theories in situations that are out of their control or when a theory better aligns with their beliefs.

The madness started within months after the photo was taken, MacDonald said. She didn't know anyone who died in the Boston bombings but attended a vigil a day after the April, 15, 2013 attack.

She got emotional after seeing a young boy place a flower down during the vigil and started crying. An Associated Press photographer captured the moment and it ended up in newspapers across the country, making her a target of conspiracy theorists.

"I feel like I was very vulnerable in that image. I was sobbing uncontrollably and every time I see it, I'm right back there and relieve those moments," MacDonald said. "I just feel awful for the victims and families of the other women because they lost loved ones and still have to deal with this madness. It's just exploiting a tragedy."

Friends, bosses and acquaintances have all reached out to her over the years after seeing the theories online. At first, she said, she tried to report those who were posting the false narratives but it became more of an uphill battle after each tragedy.

"Every time it's like what do I do? Do I report every single blog post and try to debunk every theory?" she said. "Part of me genuinely didn't even want to call attention to it because that's just feeding the trolls."

She reported one of the incidents Tuesday and hopes changes to Facebook and other social media platforms will help prevent against the fake stories from spreading as quickly as they have in the past.

But social media companies have continued to take heat in the aftermath of tragedies as critics call for filters to stop the spread of conspiracies that mislead the public and compound the pain for victims of violent attacks.

YouTube apologized Wednesday after a video attacking a survivor of the Florida high school shooting was at the top of its "trending" tab. The video has since been deleted.

MacDonald says there has to be some way of stopping the flow of misinformation and hopes people will verify information before sharing it.

"I'm just some random girl in some random photo and I hate it," she said. "My face is used as a tool to these people. It's used as a distraction to what's really happening — the grief these people are feeling and the solutions that can help prevent against this from happening again."

Follow Christal Hayes on Twitter : Journo_Christal