Mass shooting conspiracy theories: Newtown, competence, and politics

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?

Von Brunn

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 WitnessVanguard 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.

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11 Responses to Mass shooting conspiracy theories: Newtown, competence, and politics

  1. Honestly, one of the things that I was most offended by with the recent tragedy was someone calling it a conspiracy on Facebook. They thought that was not a coincidence that another “random” person who was dead at the scene (conveniently unable to answer any questions) killed a lot of people and the conversation switched so quickly to gun control, so it must be a conspiracy, they said. I wanted to puke reading that, especially because I had considered the person to be smart. I mean, even if the government wanted to somehow control guns more, would they pick an elementary school? Maybe it’s because I’m from Connecticut, but really that seemed absurd to me and quite insulting to the whole feeling of what happened.
    I pointed out to them that it was actually scarier, in my opinion, to think that someone WOULD actually do such a thing “randomly” or without some government mind control, than to assume there was a conspiracy. The things we are capable of without brainwashing are scary. The way you put it really help me to see it in a more complex and grounded way, so thank you for that, and for compiling all that data. I look forward to exploring the links to articles that you provided.

  2. You have to make distinction between rumour and conspiracy. If there is no official story on the shooting and the motives; are alternative explanations should be called conspiracies or rumours? What is your definition of conspiracy?
    We are all human so we all have something common with perpetrator of the crime and the victims at the same time. Which part is scarier? The part where you imagine being killed by some random lunatic or the part where you imagine yourself in the shoes of random lunatic?

    • Mike says:

      The definition that I usually use for a conspiracy theory is “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to achieve some (usually) sinister goal through deception of the public.” I think there are both rumours and conspiracy theories about the shooting, and some of the conspiracy theories are put forward to explain the rumours. For instance, “I heard there might have been a second shooter” is a rumour, and “the second shooter was Lanza’s CIA handler” is a conspiracy theory (or component of one) that could explain it.

      • Even though I agree with your description of conspiracy theory – the deception by “powerful people” is all around us: from elementary marketing ploys to coerce you in buying some crap on late night TV to your mentioning of CIA (which conspiracy by the definition). For some reason some deception we accept as normal way of life and some is classified as conspiracy. I guess proxy element adds something to conspiracy that really amplifies it and makes you pay attention for some reason.

      • Mike says:

        Simply calling it deception might not quite do it justice – it’s selling a cover story in order to cover up some deeper truth. Things like advertising are more or less what they seem to be, and if advertising is deceptive it’s usually deceptive in a very straightforward way – it often makes promises that are untrue (“this herb will cure cancer” or “buy this car and hot women will have sex with you”) but those promises are not usually covering up something else. In conspiracy theories, deception is used as a means to an end in a very specific sort of way: there’s a dual reality, the hidden, morally outrageous truth on the one hand and the transparent lie that’s sold to the sheeple on the other. Rather than just a lie, there’s a crime and then a lie to cover it up.

  3. So how would you call events leading up to Iraq war to gain popular support for military action? Is it conspiracy, deception, incompetence. Hindsight is 20/20 and these events didn’t happen that long ago. The danger of modern day society is that popular belief is often equated to knowledge, equivalent of evidence or moral currency. That’s the danger of intelligence vs evidence as plausible conspiracy no matter how stupid it is can shake official story which is can be nothing more than premature misguided conclusion based on available intelligence. So the threat is not so much “conspiracy”, but culture of belief/intelligence based social order as there is a need to be supported by popular belief at all times. I guess your blog is kind of like reincarnated rumour clinic that used be set up in selected communities 50+ years ago to counter false information…

    • Mike says:

      I don’t think conspiracy theories are automatically false by any means. I’d classify the cheerleading for the Iraq war as about equal parts of each.

  4. Pingback: Alex Jones and the “Monological Belief System” | The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

  5. Pingback: Conspiracy Round-Up 19/01/13 | The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

  6. G says:

    Whoa there, methodology error:

    What matters isn’t the absolute number of hits on “(name) + false flag.” What matters is the percentage of hits on “(name) + false flag” vs. “(name)” alone. (I’m sure you know this and were just going for an abbreviated version to make the point in the blog, but none the less I can’t help but play “grammar pest” about methodology;-)

    Using as the search engine (Google has a problem with built-in confirmation bias), I get:

    For “Corkins shooting”, 26,526 results.
    “Search within results” (check the box at the bottom of the page) for “false flag” gets 156 results.
    False flag = 0.588% of total.

    For “Von Brunn shooting,” 56,707 results.
    Search within results for “false flag” gets 10,148 results.
    False flag = 17.90% of total.

    For “Wade Michael Page shooting,” 915,915 results
    + “false flag,” 33,848.
    False flag = 3.7% of total.

    “Breivik shooting”: 141,177.
    + “false flag,” 30,744
    False flag = 21.78% of total.

    Apply whatever statistical significance test you prefer. This also leads to the question, what is different between the populations who are strongly emotionally affected by each shooting? That would include people who emotionally identify with the victims or their families or communities, and people who emotionally identify with the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s apparent community.

    But let’s also not forget people who emotionally identify with a community that is in opposition to that from which the conventional explanation came. For example 9/11 CT is more likely among people who identify with a community that disliked President Bush, than among those who identify with a community that liked him.

    Lastly, let’s be sure to include different communities’ emotional factors that lead them to the same conclusions despite being in mutual opposition in some other way. For example anti-vaccine CT can be motivated by disbelief in science generally, suspicion of “Big Pharma,” beliefs about “natural healing,” suspicion of government, etc. These beliefs are found among Democrats and Republicans, and among Christians and New-Agers. (Heh, envision this as the headline on an anti-vaxx website: “Across the aisle we all agree: Vaccines are eeeeeevil! We choose God-Given, All-Natural Measles!”)

    One more thing: Be sure to test your methods of using search engines to be sure they are actually getting accurate results. Ask someone with relevant professional background how to optimize searches to minimize spurious hits, repetitious hits, etc.

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