Far rightwing figureheads immediately invented an elaborate and racist conspiracy theory that CNN had lightened a photo of alleged Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago shortly after the Friday attack.
In reality, CNN had yet to air a picture of Santiago, let alone lightened a picture of him. The conspiracy also used a picture of an entirely different man named Esteban Santiago—not the alleged shooter.
Still, writers at websites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit tweeted about CNN’s nonexistent Photoshop job. Former Republican Florida Congressman Allen West, who represented Fort Lauderdale itself, even tweeted about the conspiracy and linked to an article about it on his own website.
“Why is CNN attempting to make the shooter look more white? Bizarre,” reads InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson’s tweet, which had 3,500 retweets at press time.
Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft even wrote a story about the so-called incident, titled “Look How CNN Doctored Photo of Ft. Lauderdale Shooter Esteban Santiago,” which had 2,500 shares in its first hour on Facebook, according to BuzzSumo.
“It appears CNN doctored the photo to make the suspect look more white,” wrote Hoft. “Sad.”
The attached picture, which was neither aired nor lightened by CNN, is of a 39-year-old Esteban Santiago, who lives in New York state. The image was pulled from a Florida sex offender registry.
Instead, the Esteban Santiago who shot 13 people and left five dead in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport on Friday was born in New Jersey and spent the last several years living in Anchorage, Alaska. According to officials, he is 26, not 39, and is currently in police custody.
A real image of the shooter circulated on the internet hours later, confirming that he is not the 39-year-old Santiago showed in Watson’s tweet and Gateway Pundit’s article.
Alt-right Twitter accounts appear to have helped create the confusion. After media personality Tariq Nasheed tweeted, “there are reports that the identity of one of the Ft. Lauderdale shooting suspects is a white Hispanic named Esteban Santiago,” verified alt-right Twitter user @BakedAlaska tweeted a screenshot of Nasheed’s tweet, along with a picture of the wrong Santiago.
“Esteban Santiago is not white. He’s hispanic,” wrote @BakedAlaska, whose real name is Tim Treadstone and recently made headlines for anti-Semitic comments.
Hoft’s story links to a tweet by the user @alphakangz, whose account has only existed since November.
“UNDOCTORED PHOTO vs. photo @CNN USED PHOTO of Esteban Santiago, the alleged FLL airport shooter #FortLauderdale pray for the victims,” the account tweeted.
Minutes later, a copy of the lightened photo of the 39-year-old Santiago, falsely claiming CNN attribution, appeared on Watson’s Twitter feed.
Update 6:31 p.m.: Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft emailed The Daily Beast about an hour after this story's initial publication.
"I pulled the post," he said.
"UPDATE — THIS MAY BE A DIFFERENT ESTEBAN SANTIAGO," the story now reads.
The Daily Beast reached out to Watson for comment. His tweet is still visible on his account.