Internet trolls frame rivals with distasteful 'Dark Knight' shooting hoax

While details were emerging about James Holmes, the 24-year-old shooter who killed 12 people and wounded dozens more at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado, some members of the message board 9gag apparently claimed he was one of them.

But that claim is "almost certainly false," reports Gawker's Adrian Chen, who caught wind of the 9gag angle being reported by some media outlets. "Evidence" of the gunman's supposed activity on 9gag is almost certainly fabricated, including a "warning" he is claimed to have posted on the message board a day before the shooting.

Indeed, Internet culture researcher Whitney Phillips posits that the 9gag "connection" to the Aurora shooting may actually have originated from enemies of the message board, mainly users of rival troll site 4chan who are trying to make 9gag look bad.

"One major detail is missing from this account—it's called Operation 9gag, and has been in effect on 4chan since late 2011. Essentially the op is an attempt to frame 9gag for everything terrible on the Internet," Phillips writes in a blog post that lays out the case for the whole thing being internecine troll warfare and little more.

But in the confusion of the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the pranksters exploited the situation to send some journalists and curious news watchers down a trollish rabbit hole.

They claimed that Holmes was a 9gag user going by the handle "9GAGftw" who supposedly posted a warning on the site on Thursday in the form of an image about the shooting. The image, constructed in a familiar meme-friendly format, takes an image of Nazis in a crowded theatre taken from the film Inglourious Basterds but replaces the film they're watching with a shot from the current Batman trilogy. Stamped across the image are the words, "TOMORROW I WILL KILL EVERYONE DURING THE NEW BATMAN PREMIERE IN COLORADO PEOPLE WILL DIE FOR THE GLORY OF LE 9GAG ARMY !!!"

Despite clear signs it was all a hoax, some media outlets took the bait. Canoncurrent.com, for example, reported that Holmes "apparently bragged about his plans on the social media website 9gag.com" and that "[u]sers of the website are saying that the person or persons running the 9gag.com website egged him on."

Another site, Blottr.com, added new "details" to the story, citing 9gag users as saying Holmes actually posted as "JamesHolmes124," but that the username now doesn't exist. The European news site also speculated that "[i]t's possible 9Gag have removed the [supposed image warning] post to avoid causing offence or have been asked to do so whilst law enforcement agencies investigate. Because the post has been removed, it is very hard to tell from a screenshot if the post has been photoshopped. However, some online users of 9Gag have commented on the issue suggesting that the user was known on the forum and sent a warning a few weeks ago."

Gawker's Chen noted that muddying the waters in this fashion in the aftermath of a high-profile shooting "is an old 4chan trick".