On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before Manti Te’o’s girlfriend became the only story in sports, new Washington Nationals outfielder Denard Span brought his fans in on a conspiracy theory.
“I was watching some controversial stuff on YouTube about the sandy hooks thing today!” he tweeted. “It really makes u think and wonder.”
Anybody paying attention to the dark corners of the Internet—i.e., most of the Internet—knew what Span was watching. In one week, a 30-minute YouTube video titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting—Fully Exposed” has been viewed 10,000,000 times. It uses text, narration, and mournful music to annotate found footage and websites, “proving” that the murder of 26 people in Newtown, Conn., may have been propagated then covered up by government operatives with an agenda.
I don’t know how to approach conspiracy theories anymore. Four-odd years ago, in my first piece for Slate, I profiled the “birther” activists who were petitioning to overturn Barack Obama’s victory, because they thought he was born in Kenya. I naively expected the birthers to lose their cases and move on. Many lawsuits later, I watched the chairman of the Arizona Republican Party transform the state’s Electoral College vote into a gripefest about Barack Obama’s troubling birth certificate.
But the Sandy Hook “truther” movement isn’t quite like birtherism, or like vintage 9/11 trutherism. Both of those manias grew out of partisanship. As my colleague Jeremy Stahl proved, 9/11 trutherism flourished thanks to “general unhappiness with the war in Iraq and a small but deep strain of Bush hatred.” Birtherism mushroomed when conservatives got desperate about ousting Obama.
Gun massacre trutherism isn’t tied to election results. It bubbles over after every massacre. Sandy Hook is moving public opinion like no massacre since Virginia Tech—and its truther movement, naturally, is growing faster. Every shooting that involves a mentally ill loner invites speculation that the loner was programmed by the government. After the mass casualties at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, Alex Jones’ InfoWars, a conspiracy news hub that got a recent boost from CNN’s Piers Morgan, asked readers to consider the shooter’s “work as a graduate student in a government-funded neuroscience program that specifically researched altered perception of time and reality.” The completely different circumstances of the Virginia Tech attack led to a theory that “black ops” were behind the shooting.
Every post-shooting conspiracy theory follows a script. The viral Sandy Hook video is just an unusually good example. It begins with hasty interviews from the day of the massacre, men-on-the-street spreading rumors that led the news but were debunked and would have been forgotten without the magic of online video. (This happened at Virginia Tech, too—a confused caller told Fox News that more shots were being heard on the campus long after the massacre.) Later, it suggests that Gene Rosen, a senior citizen who comforted kids fleeing the school, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, faking the whole thing. The evidence? He’s awfully compelling, and someone named “Gene Rosen” is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Other Sandy Hook truthers have “proved” that Emilie Parker, a 6-year old victim at the school, is still alive. She’s not. It’s her sister who’s been photographed since the massacre.
But what’s the point of debunking any of this? The theories don’t spread because they’re credible. They spread in part because of the confirmation bias of worried gun owners. And that’s actually been egged on, multiple times, by the National Rifle Association. The gun lobby might be the only credible group, with real clout, with the ability to bring presidential candidates to its conferences, to endorse the idea that the government would engage in a “false flag” operation. In 2011, as the Republican House of Representatives dug in on the “Fast and Furious” investigation, the NRA’s professional flak magnet Wayne LaPierre speculated that the Feds planned the debacle, to build momentum for gun control.
“Over a period of two or three years they were running thousands and thousands of guns to the most evil people on earth,” he said. “At the same time they were yelling ’90 per cent… of the guns the Mexican drug cartels are using come from the United States.’ ” It wasn’t a wild theory. “It’s the only thing that makes any sense.”
The idea that the government is one short step away from a gun ban is actually integral to the lobby’s pitch. It’s implicit when the lobby brags about ammo sales at gun shows or AR-15s disappearing from the shelves. And give the NRA this: It’s not entirely wrong about the momentum of politics. At the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference, LaPierre warned that the first-term Obama administration’s “lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.”
“We see the president's strategy crystal clear,” said LaPierre. “Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms' freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.”
Only the first clause in that rant is true. There was no gun ban proposed this week. There is no posse of New Black Panthers burning copies of the Constitution. But the fact that Obama responded to Sandy Hook at all validates LaPierre’s fears, and he’s said so. Why would anyone be surprised when that paranoia grows into a full-on conspiracy theory?