When Long Beach police on Sunday announced that they believed a man named Khalid Yagobbi had intentionally crashed into a group of pedestrians, killing a 60-year-old woman, they seemed to know the announcement would ignite a firestorm of speculation.
In their announcement, police were quick to say the crash had no apparent ties to terrorism and no known connection to the current conflict in the Middle East. It was an assessment, police said, that the FBI had helped them reach.
Almost immediately though, the department was flooded with questions on social media from users apparently convinced that something was being hidden from them.
“Any ties to terrorism?” wrote one user. “Why can’t you tell the public it was a terrorist attack?” another user asked. “Why are you not admitting this was a blatant terrorist attack by a Muslim?” said another.
The post that garnered the most attention—with over 20,000 likes, nearly 15,000 reposts and about 1,300 comments as of Thursday morning—came from far-right, anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer, whose history of expressing bigoted views has gotten her barred from some major social media platforms as well as the ride-hailing apps Lyft and Uber for her remarks about Muslim drivers.
In her post on X about the Long Beach crash, Loomer shared a photo of Yagobbi and referred to him as a “Muslim terrorist who intentionally carried out an Islamic terrorist attack via vehicular jihad.”
Loomer also said she had sources that told her the LBPD was given a “gag order” to restrict them from giving the public information about the case.
As the claims picked up speed, the LBPD issued another statement Monday, shutting down Loomer’s accusation about a gag order and reiterating that “there is no indication the incident is connected to terrorism nor the current violence in the Middle East.”
“Disinformation is dangerous and irresponsible,” LBPD spokesperson Allison Gallagher said in an email to the Long Beach Post. “As a department, we wanted to correct (it).”
But that may be an uphill battle.
The rumors about Yagobbi and the unverified claims about the crash are a prime example, experts say, of how isolated local events are often politicized, especially in times of global conflict, to fuel an agenda of hate and extremism pushed by groups who have learned to capitalize on the public’s demand for instant information.
The vacuum of facts in the immediate wake of tragedy is nearly impossible for law enforcement to fill before rumors begin to spread, leaving fertile ground for bad actors, experts told the Post.
They said the demand for instant answers has grown exponentially in recent years, not only because of social media but by the increased polarization of politics in the U.S.
“A part is being fueled by these people and these entities who are very committed to causing polarization and political conflicts for nefarious purposes,” said professor Stephanie Hartzell, who studies rhetoric and culture at Cal State Long Beach.
According to Hartzell, people like Loomer are often incentivized to make bold statements during times of global conflict because it raises their profile by spurring engagement through likes or comments.
Similarly, “there is just so much to be gained and actually relatively little to be lost to be the first person to post a fairly inflammatory theory to explain any event,” said Kevin Wallsten, a professor at CSULB who studies American elections, public opinion, political communication, social media and race, and ethnic politics.
There is even less to be lost when law enforcement agencies or news sources are unable to quickly provide answers to the public because of the slow pace of criminal investigations, he said.
In Yagobbi’s case, authorities have so far not provided evidence to show why they believed the crash was intentional, and prosecutors, in fact, may have backed off the accusation. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has charged him with one count of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, not the murder charge police originally arrested him on suspicion of.
But, regardless of the known facts—or lack thereof—Wallsten said, “You have this demand for answers, and in the absence of somebody filling that demand, you’re going to get all of the worst and most poorly motivated actors on social media meeting that demand.”
The demand has increased exponentially over time as a result of the polarization between political parties and ideologies, he said.
“There’s this constant attempt to attribute all of the evils of the world to the side of the political spectrum that we disagree with, and this stems from the fact that we no longer view each other as merely wrong, but in fact, evil,” he said.
Coupled with the demand for answers and the polarization of modern politics, there is also fear that arises during times of global conflict that can even cause well-meaning people to fall into disinformation traps, according to Wallsten. People desperate for answers might resort to following accounts that are unverified or that can purchase verification on platforms like X.
There has been a “flattening of the informational world” and there is little distinction between credible news sources and accounts seeking to spread disinformation for their own gain, Wallsten said.
“You can try to educate the entire public to be more critical consumers of news but that is likely to fail,” Wallsten said.
This can all lead to real-world consequences, something that can be especially painful, said Amr Shabaik, legal and policy director at CAIR-LA, the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Such was the case for Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy who was killed in Illinois on Saturday. Authorities said he was stabbed 26 times by his family’s landlord. Authorities said Wadea and his mother, who was also wounded in the attack, were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis.”
Over the past week and a half, since the armed conflicts between Hamas and Israel began on Oct. 7, Shabaik said there’s been a fourfold increase in the amount of calls received to the CAIR-LA office about people who have been bullied and women in hijab who have been harassed in public.
Notably, he said, an 11-year-old girl was shown the flag of Israel in school recently and told, “You’re a Muslim so you must be a terrorist,” by another student.
“It’s dehumanizing,” Shabaik said. “Stereotyping—it creates real fear, and it creates real harm for the community.”
In Long Beach, Shabaik said, it appears rumors about Yagobbi being a terrorist seem to be propelled by the simple fact that “he has an Arab-sounding name.”
Rabbi Scott Fox of Temple Israel of Long Beach said the division being fueled by disinformation needs to be replaced with unity and caution.
“Unquestionably, there is a need to stand together as a community and to mourn the loss of life,” Fox said.
In a time of conflict, Fox said, humans have two evolutionary responses: fight or flight. A third approach–to freeze–would be more appropriate when navigating situations where information is limited, he said.