NEW YORK – The strangers mocked her on social media. They called her old boss, saying she should be arrested. Now she feared one was stalking her.
Emma Gonzalez became an internet obsession after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day. She no longer felt safe walking home in her neighborhood of four years.
“Do Americans really fall for it when you talk about being a victim of a school shooting in Florida?” someone had messaged her on Facebook, joining dozens of others who doubted her identity.
But she wasn’t that Emma – the Parkland, Florida, student leading a national gun control movement who has appeared on CNN, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the cover of Time magazine.
She was another Emma, a 31-year-old vegan chef in Brooklyn.
Sure, she used to star on a low-budget cooking series. She was not, however, what they called her: a “crisis actor.”
Gonzalez was at her cafe, thinking about how weird it all was – the emails, the phone calls, the way her life changed because of something that happened 1,250 miles away – when she noticed a man pointing his phone at her.
Normally, she wouldn’t worry about a guy who might have just been taking a selfie. She’d focus on her job, which, at this April moment, was fetching dill for black-eyed pea fritters.
These days, though, fear clouded the mundane. A customer sipping coffee registered as a threat. Was he taking her picture?
“Emma,” he called to her. “Emma, you’re real.”
She knew then who he was.
This is the other side of a conspiracy theory.
After the tragedy in Parkland – like after the tragedies in Las Vegas, Orlando and Sandy Hook, New Jersey – amateur sleuths on Reddit, Twitter and WordPress questioned the stories of those who publicly grieved. They called the victims “fakers,” political operatives, employees of a “deep state” bent on disarming Americans.
The torment caused by these conspiracy theories is at the heart of a lawsuit filed last month by three parents whose children died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. They’re suing right-wing YouTube star Alex Jones, who had suggested the rampage was a hoax that the families had helped perpetuate. The parents said they have suffered “severe degree of mental stress and anguish,” according to the lawsuit, and a “high degree of psychological pain.”
The paranoia around the Florida teenagers who have called for tighter gun control (and amassed millions of Twitter followers) has grown just as mighty. Facebook and Google recently pledged to delete any post calling the kids “crisis actors.”
But 2 1/2 months after the shooting, misinformation still slips through the cracks, creating another kind of victim.
At first, Gonzalez was determined not to worry about it. The Florida kids, she thought, had it much worse.
Her motto for life’s annoyances, one of her grandmother’s old sayings, is tattooed on her right forearm: “Oh well. Too bad.”
She might have missed the lies about her if a friend had not texted: Have you seen this?
“Emma Jane Gonzalez is no child. She is an actress!” wrote a Twitteruser called @dekdarian to 20,000 followers.
This person had posted images from Gonzalez’s defunct web series, “Eat Our Feelings” – a cooking show she had shot with friends three years ago in her kitchen – and her old headshot from an attempt to launch a voice-over career in Chicago. They juxtaposed the images with photos of the Parkland Emma.
Gonzalez noted a few similarities: Both have Cuban roots. Both wanted lawmakers to ban assault rifles.
But she has long, brown hair – the teenager wears a buzz cut – and one blogger noted the older Gonzalez had a “weaker chin.”
“My guess is that sometime in the past four years, Emma Jane Gonzalez had cosmetic surgery on her chin – a chin implant – just like Chelsea Clinton,” the stranger wrote.
Gonzalez laughed at this comment.
“It was so preposterous,” she said, “how could it be anything but silly?”
Then came the Facebook messages:
“You haven’t been in high school for a long time. Why are you posing as a bald student?”
“How does it feel to be a crisis actor for the deep state?”
“You should wear makeup.”
Gonzalez normally wears black eyeliner and red lipstick. The other Emma’s face looks bare on television.
“People are really confused,” she remembers thinking.
Her stomach flipped when a man called her former employer at a comedy group and left a voice mail: “Yes, you produced a person named Emma Jane Gonzalez? They need to be questioned. Possibly arrested.”
Her mother wrote a comment on one of the conspiracy theory blogs saying the gossip about her daughter was false, signing it with her real name. Someone used that to find the family’s old addresses. One happened to be in Parkland, when Gonzalez was in first grade.
For the first time, Gonzalez began to panic. She realized: “They could definitely find me if they wanted to.”
She switched all her profiles to “private,” but clicked on the pages of people who tried to follow her: Who were they? What exactly was their ideology? Were they dangerous?
One username caught her eye: @911NoPlaner.
Gonzalez scrolled through the man’s Instagram page. There was a selfie with Sen. Cory Booker. A video of David Hogg, another Parkland teenager who has gained prominence. A photo of a bedroom with notes taped all over one wall: “#MyRoom,” he wrote, geotagging the location as the East Village in Manhattan.
The proximity made Gonzalez uneasy.
@911NoPlaner was four miles away.
@911NoPlaner says his name is Ryan Rodrigues.
He’s 34, lives in the East Village and won’t say what he does for a living.
“My hobby is – I’m a false-flag researcher,” he told the Post, which reached him through an Instagram message.
A false flag, as Rodrigues explains it, is a government-staged hoax. He believes the shootings in Parkland, Orlando and Las Vegas were all “false flags,” faked or inflated by the media to help the “deep state” take away people’s guns.
Not that he likes guns. He doesn’t identify as a Republican or a Democrat, either. He’s neutral on President Donald Trump.
“But the establishment that controls our government is evil,” he said in a phone interview. “It wants to have control over the populace. It has motivation for disarmament.”
This idea manifested after Rodrigues watched videos in 2001 of the twin towers falling. He thought they looked fake. He felt crazy until he found an internet community that shared his belief. (It inspired his username.)
Rodrigues rarely trusts what mainstream journalists report.
The blogosphere, though, and people like Alex Jones – that’s where he gets his news, and that’s where he learned about Gonzalez.
After five or so minutes of Googling, he found where she worked. He could investigate her story himself.
He filmed himself walking up to her Brooklyn cafe. He ordered a small coffee and a scone. The screen shook as he waited.
The video cuts out at the two-minute mark and then cuts back in as he is saying “thank you” to Gonzalez, who stands still in a red jacket.
The encounter made him realize Gonzalez was, in fact, an adult who works in New York. She did not look like the teenager he saw on television.
So, he crossed her off his list and planned to check out the next possible crisis actor.
“Emma,” Rodriguez repeated to himself as he left. “Emma, you’re real.”
Gonzalez called the police.
She didn’t like doing it. She had done it before only to report an accident.
The officer told her to call back if the man showed up again.
She had recognized @911NoPlaner from his Instagram account – the sole follow request, as far as she could tell, that was sent from New York.
None of the pictures made him look dangerous, she thought. Just really into conspiracy theories.
Still, he showed up at her cafe. There he was: A piece of the internet turned suddenly and frighteningly real.
After he left, Gonzalez tried getting back to work, but a half-hour later, she was sobbing in the cafe’s office. She could not brush off what had happened, and it occurred to her that two months of tension were pouring out.
A co-worker offered to take her home. Her roommate, though, would be at the restaurant later for dinner. They could walk back together.
Three weeks have passed. She has not heard from @911NoPlaner, and no one else from the web has come to find her.
The Facebook messages and Instagram requests have slowed.
She wonders how long the calm will last. The amateur sleuths bother her most when the Florida high schoolers make the news.
When Gonzalez walks home at night, she slides her house key between her ring and middle finger. A jab that would cut.
She wants to be ready if a stranger with worse intentions shows up.