Why we can’t ignore the truthers

Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists aren't going to go away if we pretend they don't exist

Topics: sandy hook truthers, Newtown truthers, Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting, Media Criticism, Conspiracy theorists, Editor's Picks,

Why we can't ignore the truthers (Credit: AP/Charles Krupa/Salon)

We’ve been writing a lot about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting — some say too much. “Why you’re giving these Sandy Hook truther media whores the time of day. Ignore them and they go away [sic],” one reader emailed.

Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case. The genie is already out of the bottle and this myth will likely only heat up as the debate over gun control does. “It’s by far the hottest topic of the moment,” David Mikkelson, the co-founder of the myth-debunking website Snopes.com told BuzzFeed. As the site’s Ben Smith and CJ Lotz wrote today, “Some of the factors that can bring theories in from the fringe appear to be driving its unexpected surge this month: A connection to America’s intensely polarized political culture in general, and a message that appeals to a longstanding fear among gun owners, in particular.”

“This has gone super viral. It even surprised me how crazy insane the interest in this stuff is,” Paul Joseph Watson, a guest host for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ radio show, said today.

And thanks to the Internet, the media can no longer suffocate a smoldering conspiracy theory by ignoring it. ”The biggest problem for theorists was always getting their message out,” Robert Goldberg, a University of Utah historian who studies conspiracy theories, told Salon. “The Internet has completely changed that. Often, they don’t even bother trying to get their theories in the mainstream media anymore.” So even if the the few media outlets that have covered the theories give them a bit more exposure, it’s unlikely conspiracists would have a problem reaching their audience on their own anyway.

Indeed, they’ve already been tremendously successful. The numbers alone are staggering.

The most popular video on YouTube, “The Sandy Hook Shooting – Fully Exposed,” produced by ThinkOutsideTheTV, already has nearly 11 million views. There are at least 40 other Sandy Hook conspiracy theory videos on YouTube with over 100,000 views. Alex Jones’ conspiracy websites, which get 11 million visitors a month, are publishing new stories about the Newtown massacre every day.

Mentions of “Sandy Hook hoax” have exploded on Twitter in the past week. This graph shows the spike in Google searches for “Sandy Hook hoax,” which mostly come from conservative states like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Kentucky:

Then there’s the increasing flirtation with the hoax theory among presumably credible people. On top of Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy, and popular Ohio TV anchor Ben Swann, there’s Denard Span, a centerfielder for the Washington Nationals. He tweeted this week, “I was watching some controversial stuff on YouTube about the sandy hooks thing today! It really makes u think and wonder.” (He later apologized and walked back his comments.)

One reason for the explosive growth of the movement is that it builds on existing conspiracy theories, especially classic “black helicopters” anti-government paranoia and theories surrounding 9/11. Not only do Sandy Hook truthers share an epistemological foundation with existing theorists, but the believers are often the very same people. On online message boards dedicated to swapping conspiracy theories, many of the commentators who argue that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation actually see it as merely the latest in a long line of other government operations aimed at disarming Americans, such as the shooting in Aurora, Colo., and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Meanwhile, 9/11 truthers were quick to jump on the Sandy Hook bandwagon. One popular YouTube video purportedly offering “absolute proof” that the shooting was a hoax (338,000 views and counting) was produced by Operation Terror, a group that produced a series of 9/11 truther videos. Let’s Roll, an Internet forum created for discussing 9/11 theories, is rife with Sandy Hook threads.

Even birthers have gotten in on the mix. Orly Taitz, the dentist/attorney/real estate agent who helped push questions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate into the mainstream, has written a series of blog posts about how police are “lying” about Sandy Hook. Gary Wilmott, a paralegal from Los Angeles who has run a number of birther websites, has also “confirmed” that Sandy Hook was a “scam.”

And a number of readers have written in with their own stories. “My sister is a pretty smart person. She’s in med school, went to [a good Northeast liberal arts college], is reliably liberal … and yesterday she texts me asking if i had heard about these conspiracies and whether they’re true,” one said. A woman from Orange County, Calif., told us how a fellow mother on her children’s swim team told her that Peter and Nancy Lanza worked for the CIA and trained Adam to be a suicide gunman because President Obama wanted them to. “This was a typical suburban mom … I was thunderstruck,” she said. Another wrote in about his stepfather, who “believe[s] that Sandy Hook was some sort of operation.” “My step-dad is usually fairly logical, once shown proof he is able to change his mind, hence trying to weed out all these ‘alternative’ theories,” he added.

Of course, it’s impossible to get any kind of real handle on how many people out there actually believe this stuff, but studies show that belief in conspiracy theories is far more common than most people probably assume. For instance, we reported yesterday on a new survey showing that over 60 percent of Americans believe one conspiracy theory or another.

The true believers will probably never come around — confirmation bias will make them deaf to any conflicting evidence — but experts say the way to fight conspiracy theories is to prevent them from spreading. The only way we can do that is by first acknowledging that we have a problem.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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