The idea that mass shooting victims and witnesses are hired performers serving a dark purpose has over the last decade migrated from the farthest margins of conspiracy media
On Tuesday on CNN, Parkland survivor David Hogg was asked by Anderson Cooper about the plethora of right wing websites and social media accounts spreading conspiracy theories about him.
In response, Hogg said: Im not a crisis actor. Im someone who had to witness this and live through this and I continue to be having to do that.
Those with little experience of the febrile world of conspiracy theory may not fully understand what Hogg is being accused of. But the idea that mass shooting victims and witnesses are hired performers serving a dark purpose has over the last decade migrated from the farthest margins of conspiracy media.
Thanks to a range of right wing media actors, it is now much closer to the mainstream: on Tuesday, a Florida Republicans aide was fired after he suggested the survivors were actors.
The first thing to understand is that the crisis actor conspiracy theory has a slender tie to reality. Crisis actors do exist, though there is nothing underhanded about them: they are simply performers hired to play disaster victims in emergency drills or wounded combatants in military exercises. They provide a degree of realism for people practicing for real emergencies further down the line.
But in recent years, the term has been appropriated by conspiracy theorists claiming that mass shootings are staged. Social media users, broadcasters and even political staffers now routinely allege that events like the Parkland shooting are orchestrated by shadowy actors in order to effect some political goal. Lately, they are likely to nominate the deep state as a culprit by which they mean segments of the intelligence community and unelected officials who are held to be working against Donald Trump and working towards the confiscation or regulation of firearms.
Google trends searches show that searches for the term in the last decade have spiked around high profile mass shootings. There was a small flurry earlier, at around the time of the Tacoma Mall shooting near Seattle in 2005. But by far the biggest spike came at the time of the Newtown shooting, where 26 elementary school students and adults were shot dead at Sandy Hook school.
By this time, conspiracy culture had already bedded down the concept of false flag attacks. This is the idea that powerful forces routinely arrange massacres or terrorist atrocities, and make it appear as if some other individual or group did them, in order to achieve their sinister political goals. 9/11 conspiracy theories had long asserted that while it appeared that the al-Qaida terrorist network was responsible for the attacks in New York, they had really been orchestrated by the Bush administration, Mossad, or some other actor in order to provide a basis for war in the Middle East.
The crisis actor concept augments the false flag idea. It offers an alternative narrative for incidents of mass violence: that government agencies or other powerful actors stage shootings, and then employ actors to play victims, witnesses, and bystanders.
If this is true, conspiracy theorists think, it means that Americas gun violence crisis is not real, and has been manufactured in order to disarm the populace. Some conspiracy theorists will then argue that this is part of a larger plot to subjugate Americans to tyranny.
The evidence presented is often the resemblance between people featured in media reporting of mass shootings and people who have been present at other events. Here, YouTube and other video services provide both the raw materials for conspiracy theorizing, in the form of shareable, reusable video, and a venue for the propagation of the resultant investigations.
Its no coincidence that the cottage industry of false flag allegations has grown in tandem with the mass uptake of social media theories are absorbed and spread rapidly online by a range of groups. Conspiracy broadcasters have large, international audiences, and some polling suggests that up to half of Americans believe in at least some signature conspiracy theories.
Some outlets spreading crisis actor theories, like Alex Jones and True Pundit, have been lent credibility by the president or members of his family. And there has been some suggestion that conspiracy theory has now been automated, with tall tales about the Parkland massacre being spread by a network of bots.
As with 9/11 conspiracy thinking, Alex Jones acted as a major popularizer of crisis actor meme. Jones said back in 2012 and 2013 that Sandy Hook was a false flag and that no one died. He claimed that the children killed were acting for the cameras, and that the parents had faked their own childrens deaths.
Under pressure, Jones has sometimes tried to back away from his role in propagating the theory. But in other incidents since from Orlando to Las Vegas, Joness first resort in his broadcasts and on his website has been to assume that the official accounts are elaborate lies, and that many on the scene are in on the deception.
Jones and others often take advantage of the inevitable confusion that attends complex events like mass shootings to freely speculate on the events, and lodge their explanation in the minds of their audience.
These theories would be laughable, and unworthy of our attention, were it not for their real world impacts, and the fact that so many people accept them. When Jones was interviewed by Megan Kelly last year, parents of Sandy Hook victims took to the airwaves and the Internet to protest. They said that on top of their grief, they had been harassed for years since the massacre by people who, thanks in part to Jones, believed that they and their dead children were lying.
The teens who are bravely speaking out after the attack will not only have to contend with conservative media bottom-feeders questioning their competence to speak about the massacre. They will also have to deal with people who think that they are knowingly participating in an elaborate hoax.
This article was amended on 22 February 2018 to correct a misspelling of Parkland from Parkville.