On December 14th, 2012, 26 people, most of them young children, were killed in a shooting spree at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Unconfirmed rumours about the identity and motives of the person responsible immediately began to be passed around, and later retracted, by the news media; however, as I write this, police are still trying to piece together exactly how the tragedy came to happen. It will likely be some time before the relevant authorities are able to gather and verify all the facts, and make the details available to the public.
For some conspiracy theorists, though, no further explanation is needed. They already know what caused the shooting: It was the U.S. government – the same government which, they say, was behind other horrific shootings such as those at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and a shopping mall in Oregon. For these conspiracy theorists, the shooting in Newtown is just the latest in a long line of false-flag operations staged by people within the government as a ruse to justify taking away the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Within hours of the Newtown shooting articles appeared on professional conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ website insinuating that the shooter (or more likely multiple gunmen) could be a government patsy under the influence of mind control, and accusing President Obama of faking tears during a press conference. Elsewhere, theorists saw the correcting of unconfirmed rumours in the media as evidence of a cover-up, and even hinted that chem-trails seen over Connecticut may somehow have played a role in the events.
This shows the conspiracist mindset in action. People who endorse one conspiracy theory tend to buy into many others – including theories with no logical connection and, as Mike Wood and colleagues demonstrated, occasionally even theories which directly contradict each other. This suggests that at least some people come to believe conspiracy theories not through rational and impartial evaluation of the evidence supporting each claim, but rather because they have an overarching worldview in which conspiracy is the default explanation for any event or observation. This is why even in the minutes and hours immediately after an event, when few facts can be known for sure, some people will already be convinced that the answer is conspiracy.
We all have a strong and emotional reaction to shocking events like the murders in Newtown. For some people this reaction is to instantly jump to the conclusion that it was a conspiracy. The rest of us can get on with grieving the loss of innocent lives, figuring out what happened, and discussing what can be done to prevent senseless tragedies like this from happening again.