As the conspiracy theories around the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut continue to grow, Rob’s insightful post from a couple of days ago has generated a lot of interest. We can talk about evidence or lack of evidence as much as we like, but ultimately, as with other mass killings like the Aurora shooting and Norway massacre, some people will accept the mainstream account and others will reject it in favour of a conspiracy theory. What determines whether someone thinks that there’s a conspiracy behind a mass shooting or not?
This is a very complex question, but one way to approach it is this: why don’t more people think that James Wenneker von Brunn and Floyd Lee Corkins II were set up by a conspiracy?
These two names probably aren’t familiar to you unless you have a pretty good memory and follow American news. Von Brunn was responsible for a shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. back in 2009, and Corkins opened fire at the offices of the right-wing Family Research Council earlier this year. Neither was particularly successful – von Brunn killed one security guard, and Corkins didn’t manage to kill anyone, injuring one guard before being taken down.
Their relative lack of success is what makes their respective shootings less inviting for conspiracy theories. Psychological research by McCauley and Jacques has shown that people believe conspiracies to be more competent than lone gunmen – the more successful an attack, the more likely it is that people will think there was a conspiracy behind it. Leman and Cinnirella had a similar finding, and suggested a more general tendency to suspect that a major cause must lie behind a major event (though I don’t find this entirely convincing).
Google search results seem to line up accordingly. Corkins didn’t manage to kill anyone, and his name plus the phrase “false flag” gives just 1,680 hits. Von Brunn killed one person, and the same search with his name gives 20,700 hits. Wade Michael Page, the Sikh temple shooter, is in mass-killing territory with six people dead, and this method gives 90,000 hits. Breivik, who killed 77 people, gives 197,000. This is a fairly consistent pattern, and a gruesome illustration of how much more popular conspiracy theories are when a killer is more successful in whatever his (or her) awful plans might be.
If it weren’t for their relative incompetence, Corkins and Von Brunn might have been very popular targets for conspiracy theories. Why? Politics.
Conspiracy theories seem to be spread most by people who share something with the person implicated in the official story. This is no surprise, as the purpose of a false flag attack is to frame a rival for something they didn’t do. Corkins, for instance, shot up the offices of the Family Research Council, a right-wing lobby group known for its opposition to gay marriage. The small community of “Corkins truthers” seems to have been primarily confined to Democratic Underground, an American left-wing forum. The highest-profile promoters of conspiracy theories regarding Von Brunn’s involvement in the Holocaust Museum shootings seem to have sympathies with white nationalism and Holocaust revisionism, or are at least highly suspicious of Jews (the sites on the first page of Google hits for the term used above include America First Books, Pragmatic Witness, Vanguard News Network, and Stormfront).
(This is by no means restricted to mass-shooting conspiracy theories; 9/11 conspiracy theories are by far most popular in the Muslim world.)
I mentioned dissonance theory in a previous post, and it applies just as well here (along with ingroup bias). If you have common cause with a mass murderer, that’s bound to cause some discomfort. One way of circumventing this is to disown the murderer and claim that they don’t represent you, as many LGBT advocacy organisations did with Corkins and even some white nationalists (sort of) did with Von Brunn. Conspiracy theories allow you not only to unshoulder the burden, but to place it on your enemies as well – thus what appears to be an attack by Corkins, a man who believes conservatives are evil, is just further proof of how evil conservatives are. The Oklahoma City Bombing, ostensibly carried out by militia movement sympathizers against what they considered to be a tyrannical government, is seen by many in the militia movement as further evidence that the government will stop at nothing to smear its enemies. So any mass shooting that comes off as an act against a particular group is bound to produce some amount of conspiracy theories.
In America, of course, any mass shooting is politicized by default because of the status of gun control (and increasingly, especially after Newtown, mental health care) as a culture war issue. But that’s a topic for another post.