Is there a conspiracy theory too idiotic or vile to go mainstream? Updated
UPDATE: Video of harasmment
Conspiracy theories exist in many different forms, in diverse cultures. They are likely a product of human evolutionary tendency to see patterns and “intent” where there is none. Michael Shermer’s excellent book “the Believing Brain” goes into this subject in detail.
As secularists, it is not rare that we have to deal with religion-based conspiracy theories. Creationism is one good such example. Somehow, many thousands of professors from all over the world are supposed to be in secret collusion to hide the true nature of creation and promote their materialistic philosophy. Riiight. Somehow the same professors whose relationships are frequently marked by resentment and often cannot cordially resolve differences about who discovered what first have managed to keep such a vast plot hidden from the public eye for over a century.
However, as I wrote recently, here is quite a bit to learn about conspiracy theories in general from creationist misrepresentations and starw man arguments.
In the recent years, in the bitterly divided US political arena, there has been no shortage of conspiracy nuts. From the 9/11 “truth” movement to “birthers”, they generally revolve around government bureaucrats engaging in secret nefarious activities to deceive and manipulate the public in the service of an agenda.
And now we are dealing with a new one. The claim that the Obama administration somehow staged the mass shooting in Connecticut to have an excuse to go after guns.
The theory is ludicrous, but there is hard evidence that it has begun to go viral. The leading, anonymous, 30-minute video created by YouTube user ThinkOutsideTheTV had been viewed 10.6 million times by Friday morning. The search engine Topsy, which measures Twitter conversation, shows discussion of the video rising fast this week starting on Sunday and then, as those conversations peak and drop, discussion of a “Sandy Hook hoax” largely continuing to rise, with only a slight dip. And Twitter is just a tiny slice of a broader social space that includes Facebook, YouTube, and, in particular, email forwards, which typically are the key communication channels for conspiracy theories.
“It’s by far the hottest topic of the moment,” said David Mikkelson, the cofounder of the popular fact-checking website Snopes.com, which offers a detailed and extensive debunking of the theory’s various planks.
The term “Sandy Hook conspiracy” was also a “hot search” on Google this week.
Sometimes it gets rather hilarious.
Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has launched an internal investigation of a communications professor, James Tracy, who has claimed the Obama Administration may have hired “crisis actors” who would grieve on camera and shape public opinion in favor of gun control.
“There is a growing awareness that the media coverage of the massacre of 26 children and adults was intended primarily for public consumption to further larger political ends,” Tracy wrote on his blog. (The class he teaches is called “Culture of Conspiracy.”)
Quite appropriately, I think.
So how did they come up with these bizarre ideas?
The theorists claim some of the parents and witnesses are paid actors who, because they don’t shed tears on camera, are pretending their children died. The “Sandy Hook Shooting – Fully Exposed” video shows a photo of children hugging Obama during a visit to Newtown. The theorists claim one of the little girls is Emilie Parker, who was killed in the shooting. The little girl, who shares many of Emilie’s features, is her sister.
Other claims point to contradictory media statements during the coverage immediately after the event. One of those, which was cleared up soon after, was that shooter Adam Lanza couldn’t have killed students with a semi-automatic rifle because it was found in his car by police officers. That weapon was in fact, police say, a shotgun they pulled out of his trunk.
Another component of the theory is that there were multiple shooters. But a man initially handcuffed in the nearby woods by police (and implicated by theorists) was a father trying to visit his son’s school when he heard shots ring out. He was interviewed and released, but this detail dropped from news coverage when Lanza was identified.
As I wrote in my earlier post on creationism and climate change, one telltale sign of conspiracy nuts is that they often embrace (or at least do not openly reject) ideas that are mutually contradictory. For example, hoow can a “God the mutagen” creationist like Michael Behe embrace a young earth creationist like Paul Nelson? What can these two men have in common, other than a common enemy (the reality)?
The parallels to the Sandy Hook shooting couldn’t be any clearer. The parents and witness were actors and one of the dead children is still alive (meaning there was no shooting). And yet, the weapon was not the semiautomatic. And there was more than one shooter. How could there have been more than one shooter if there was no shooting?
What should the media do with this insanity?
The media is often reluctant to engage such theories directly. The political press spent much of 2007 and 2008 ignoring grassroots conservative beliefs that President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and that his wife had thrown around the epithet “whitey.” But both of those eventually became so widespread, embraced by local elected officials and other public figures, that they were impossible to ignore; their course served as a template for Obama’s being forced to display, from the White House podium, his birth certificate. Now the media is on the cusp of having to struggle with whether or not to cover and debunk another insane theory, at the cost of — critics say — dignifying it.
And it is getting ugly.
At least one Newtown resident told Salon that he’s begun to receive harassment accusing him of cooperating with a government cover-up.
As a person, I find it outrageous that some can trivilize this horror and insult the victims and their families in pursuit of some political objectives. Ironically, they are guilty of the very thing they accuse others of doing. Can you imagine losing a child and then being told you are a paid actor on camera?
Conservative media figure Glenn Beck on Wednesday took a call from the father of a Sandy Hook student who wanted to dispel conspiracy rumors. Having to address the theories “makes me want to throw up all over again,” he said, and added later, “It happened. It really happened.”
Beck told the father he planned to do another show to “set the record straight” on conspiracy theories.
Right. Beck is the “go to” person to set the record straight on conspiracy theories.