Meet the people who believe that US mass shootings are staged
It's a depressing but true fact that the aftermath almost every mass shooting in America follows a familiar script. People around the world send thoughts and prayers to the families of those involved, law enforcement officials admit that they failed to act on the warning signs, politicians bicker about whether or not to bring in gun controls and #PrayFor(InsertTownName) trends across social media. Afterwards, the world moves on, forgets, and we go through the same worn-out operation the next time.
However, in recent years there has been a disturbing new addition to the procedure: conspiracy theorists taking to the internet to spread vile rumours that the shooting was staged by the government, that the victims never existed and that their families are nothing more than just actors paid for their performances.
Distressingly, this was the very scenario that played out after the Florida school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Mere hours after the teenage gunman killed 17 people with an AR-15 assault rifle, claims that the violent rampage had been staged were flying about Twitter, with some claiming that the massacre was actually orchestrated by the US government as part of an elaborate plot to promote stricter gun control legislation or to persecute gun owners.
Once you fall down the conspiracy theorist social media rabbit hole, there's no climbing back up. Type in pretty much any incident in the last decade and an astonishing number of posts will emerge. Take then-48-year-old Mike Cronk's story, for example. Mike was at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in 2017 when gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire, leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured, in the worst mass shooting in modern US history.
When his friend Rob McIntosh was shot in the chest, Mike dragged him to safety amid the violence, eventually flagging down an ambulance, but only after one young man who had also been shot had died in his arms. After the tragedy, the former school teacher had spoken to a TV news reporter who had approached him and requested an interview. The clip went viral on Youtube, but rather than discussing Mike's heroic actions, many people began claiming that Mike was an actor hired to play the part of a witness in the brutal incident that occurred on October 1.
Soon after, the messed up rumour had taken control of Mike's life, with conspiracy theorists viciously naming him as a "b******t witness", accusing him of "smiling for the cameras", assessing whether the amount of blood he had on him was enough to justify his story and targeting him with death threats. Online search engines added fuel to the fire, with autocomplete suggesting "Mike Cronk crisis actor" as a search option.
In another incident, 44-year-old Amy Hallas sent dozens of Facebook messages to the family of Braden Matejka, a Vegas victim who survived a gunshot in the head. Demanding proof of his injuries and criticising a GoFundMe page designed to raise funds for his recovery, the Pennsylvania, woman, reportedly called the family “beyond fake”, saying the victim was guilty of the “worst acting” she had ever seen and posting a meme on the Facebook page of Matejka’s brother that called the shooting victim a “lying c***”.
A similarly horrifying narrative unfolded in the case of Andy Parker, the father of murdered news reporter Alison Parker, who was shot dead on live TV alongside Adam Ward by former colleague Vester Lee Flanagan II. Reportedly, Andy - who has to live with the knowledge that anyone can at any time watch footage of his daughter's death - was criticised for his "acting abilities", with hoaxers calling them "subpar" and adding a caption reading "No tears" to a video of an interview he gave. Furthermore, conspiracists analysed the footage frame-by-frame, claiming that there was no visible blood from her shooting and suggesting that the television reporter had had plastic surgery to change her appearance and had moved to Israel.
“I don’t care what they say about me,” Andy, now an Advocate for Common Sense Gun Legislation, said months later, “but leave the foundation alone. Leave my daughter alone.”
Perhaps one of the biggest conspiracies centres around the Sandy Hook School shooting, which saw Adam Lanza fatally shoot his mother before murdering 20 students and six staff members in December 2012. Online claims that the school shooting "never really happened" seized upon small inconsistencies between initial news reports from the chaotic scene and the solid facts that later emerged. They alleged that videos of the shooting were shot using a green screen, that there is footage of children going in circles back into the building and even that the Sandy Hook School was closed years prior to the shooting. Shockingly, these allegations, along with claims that the brutal incident was premeditated to occur at the same time that President Barack Obama told the UN that he would sign the small arms treaty, spurred multiple extensive investigations.
The real question is why? It has been estimated that roughly half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, 19 per cent buying that idea that the government was responsible for 9/11 and 24 per cent asserting that Obama was not born in the US. So why are some people so willing to disseminate these vile rumours? Why are the dozens of trembling children, distraught relatives and stolen lives not enough to convince them the hundreds of shootings that occur every single year are real?
Colleen Seifert, a University of Michigan psychology professor, suggested to The Guardian that people are inclined to believe conspiracy theories simply because the real-life tragedy of the event was too implausible and horrifying to them. Discussing how theories help people take back control of a terrifying world, as well as fulfil their intrinsic need for happiness, she said: “The idea that you could be innocently going to a concert and could be shot – you don’t want to believe that’s true. You’re protecting your own feeling of security and safety.”
On the other side of the coin is the idea that these people like to be ahead of the curve. As the scholar and author Michael Billig put it in 1984: “The conspiracy theory offers the chance of hidden, important, and immediate knowledge, so that the believer can become an expert, possessed of a knowledge not held even by the so-called experts.”
However, being "in the know" isn't all there is to it. Some experts have suggested that some human brains are simply wired up differently, leading them to find conspiracy theories appealing. A study from researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Kent linked conspiracy theorists with a mental disturbance called “illusory pattern perception”, where the mind identifies “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” In other words, it finds a pattern where one doesn't exist.