Whither the Sandy Hook truthers?

After their assault on Gene Rosen, momentum may already be waning for the conspiracy theorists

Published January 24, 2013 9:52PM (EST)

State Police spokesman Lieutenant J. Paul Vance speaks to the media in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012.   (Reuters/Eric Thayer)
State Police spokesman Lieutenant J. Paul Vance speaks to the media in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012. (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

Could the Sandy Hook truther movement, the people who question whether December's mass shooting could have been some kind of government hoax, already be dying out? Conspiracy theories have developed after every major tragedy like this -- “Once I learned about all the false flag attacks in history that have been proven to be true, I knew it was only a matter of time before another came a long,” the creator of "The Sandy Hook Shooting - Fully Exposed" YouTube video told Gawker -- but Sandy Hook seemed different, thanks in part to the fact that it produced meaningful action on gun control, for a change.

But even as the White House and congressional Democrats forge ahead with gun legislation this week, interest in conspiracy theories surrounding Sandy Hook already seem to be flagging after reaching a fever pitch last week.

Google searches and social media mentions of “Sandy Hook hoax” or “Sandy Hook conspiracy” have fallen off dramatically, after spiking on Jan. 16. Views of the most popular YouTube video espousing the hoax theory have plateaued at a little over 11.5 million, earning few new views in recent days after a dramatic climb last week. And the follow-up video has earned a relatively meager 131,000 views since being posted five days ago.

Still, the drop alone may not mean the demise of the movement, warned Deen Freelon, an assistant professor at American University in Washington who studies social media and politics. “These search and social media peaks and valleys are probably driven by news coverage. We found similar patterns in our work on Twitter use during the Arab Spring -- many of the tweets were from people interested in the topic as opposed to protest participants, and I'd be surprised if something similar wasn't going on here,” he said.

Indeed, news coverage of the conspiracy theories seemed to peak on Jan. 16 with stories about Gene Rosen, the good samaritan who has since been harassed by conspiracy theorists. But mainstream media coverage continued in the days that followed, including a double segment from CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a much-discussed BuzzFeed story.

And while it’s hard to measure, there are plenty of signs of decline elsewhere.

One problem for theorists is that the evidence supporting their claim has mostly dried up as the media or they themselves debunk it. “Most of the theories put out concerning the massacre have since been debunked,” Paul Joseph Watson wrote yesterday. As with many conspiracy theories, Alex Jones’ websites have been leading the charge, with Watson as a pointman.

But the bigger problem for theorists is that most opinion leaders never took the bait, especially those whom theorists may view as allies. Glenn Beck, for instance, has aggressively gone after the conspiracy theorists, publishing numerous critical pieces on his website, The Blaze, and devoting his entire hour-long TV show yesterday to debunking the myths point-by-point and in great detail. (This reporter, actually, was a guest.)

Even Jesse Ventura, the one-time governor of Minnesota who has since become a high-profile conspiracy hunter, warned fellow believers to stay away from the “trap” of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. In an Op-Ed this week on LewRockwell.com, a libertarian site that is no stranger to anti-government conspiracy thinking, Ventura said there is no evidence to support the notion that Sandy Hook was a “false flag operation,” warning his compatriots, “You only hurt our cause by promoting false conspiracies and crackpot agendas.”

“Those of us who study real history, not state sanctioned history, can very easily become just as close minded and biased for conspiracy as those who stand in our way and refuse to accept the truth about our government and the people running it. It’s very easy to fall into that trap,” Ventura wrote in a cogent moment of self-awareness.

If anyone has the credibility and voice within the conspiracy-minded community to nip Sandy Hook speculation in the bud, it’s Jesse Ventura. Of course, even he will probably never be able to change the minds of the true believers, but his warning could ward off other opinion-leaders from going down the same road.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan argued in a smart critique at the Columbia Journalism Review that media outlets, including Salon, risk merely enabling the spread of fringe conspiracy theories by writing about them, even negatively. But we were aware of this risk, and decided the myth had already received enough attention on its own to merit a response. And as Nyhan wrote, it’s possible that “criticizing false claims might help to deter elites from endorsing them in the future.” Hopefully, that's what happened here.

Beck's and Ventura’s proactive warnings could be viewed as a form of self-policing, which is critical to stopping any conspiracy theory from taking root. Republican leaders failed to do this with the birther myth in 2008 and 2009, but they didn’t make the same mistake this time.

Just look at what happened to Martha Dean, who was the 2010 Republican nominee for attorney general in Connecticut. Last week, she posted a link on her Facebook page to a YouTube video arguing the Newtown massacre was a hoax. The backlash was fierce, and it was led by fellow Republicans. “We do not need to hear these vile conspiracy claims,” the Republican leaders of the Connecticut House and Senate said in a joint statement calling on Dean to take down the Facebook post (she did).

Former Republican Gov. John Rowland, now the host of a local radio show, tore into Dean in an hour-long interview yesterday, grilling her on evasive answers regarding her lingering questions on the Sandy Hook massacre, and condemning her “just asking questions” defense as “toxic.”

Ohio TV reporter Ben Swann drew “global attention,” as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it, for credulously investigating some of the questions asked by conspiracy theorists about Sandy Hook, and led the station manager to “review” the matter with Swann, according to an email forwarded to Salon from a reader who complained.

Meanwhile, interest seems to be waning in recent days on conspiracy-themed message boards and websites. There’s just a single story on the front page of BeforeItsNews today about Sandy Hook, whereas there were over a dozen last week. There are none today on the front pages of AboveTopSecret oor NaturalNews or the Reddit conspiracy subsection. Some conspiracy forum commenters seem to be sick of the Sandy Hook stuff. “Hookers are shittying up this subreddit something bad,” read one comment on Reddit that received lots of upvotes.

Bob Goldberg, a professor at the University of Utah who studies conspiracy theories, thinks the drop-off may be due to a “lack of engagement by conspiracy theorists” and the negative media coverage. “I believe that the media response, which was not supportive, may keep them under cover, UNTIL the next event in the conspiracy reveals itself of course,” he said in an email.

It’s too early to tell for sure, but this conspiracy theory may be receding in record time.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

MORE FROM Alex Seitz-Wald