The same conspiracy theories pop up every single time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, with minimal variation. There are a couple of ways to look at this. On the one hand, maybe the conspiracy theories are right, and the Powers That Be, the ones who are really behind the mass shootings, like to use the same playbook over and over again. On the other hand, maybe it’s a combination of factors: common behaviours in unusual situations, fishing for connections, and recycled logic from previous incidents. At any rate, let’s run through the commonalities, and you can see for yourself what I mean.
- Multiple shooters
Ever since the Columbine shootings, where there were reports of more than two shooters, nearly every mass shooting has given rise to rumours that there were more shooters than officially acknowledged. I can’t actually find a single shooting that this hadn’t been true of, from the Virginia Tech massacre to the Aurora Batman incident to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Some theories of this type are more popular than others, but the multiple shooter motif is pretty consistent.
Usually, the conspiratorial explanation for this is that the conspirators want to have just one person take the fall for the shooting. However, they have a whole team of agents actually go around shooting people. The reason why they’d want to do this is not always particularly clear. Surely, if you want to blame a single shooter, it’s easier to just have a single shooter than to use multiple shooters and then engage in a no doubt massive cover-up of the others. To keep multiple shooters quiet you’d have to wipe out forensic evidence, intimidate eyewitnesses, scrub media coverage, make sure the other shooters stay quiet, and so on. Essentially, you need a much bigger conspiracy. Does the benefit (say, to the number of casualties inflicted) of having extra shooters justify all that hassle? Who knows.
The non-conspiracy explanation is that things get pretty chaotic in mass shootings, scoop-hungry media sources pick up and run with unconfirmed reports, and people are generally lousy eyewitnesses. Random people in the area might be misidentified as additional shooters (as happened at Sandy Hook). People who are known associates of the actual shooter or shooters might be lumped in with them, under the assumption that an entire clique is simultaneously shooting the place up (as happened at Columbine). Police, security guards, or intervening bystanders might be misidentified as additional shooters, or there might be incidents of friendly fire when the shooter and others get into a gun battle. From the psychological end, we know that people tend to massively overestimate the effectiveness and accuracy of eyewitness accounts. People will misperceive and misremember events, particularly if they’re being shot at or simply having a gun waved in their faces. It takes considerable work to piece together what happened in a given situation based on eyewitness accounts, and some accounts will inevitably end up being wrong.
- Crisis actors
This didn’t properly get going until the last five years – it really kicked off around the time of the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook massacre. These days, a mass shooting in the news is basically a guarantee that in the next 24 hours at least 100 different people on the internet are going to use the red paintbrush tool in MS Paint to put meaningful circles around pictures of people’s eyebrows.
Usually, this is all in aid of the idea that some people involved with a mass shooting are “crisis actors” – fake victims generally used in disaster preparedness drills, but co-opted by the conspirators in order to act out roles in fake mass shootings. The supposed presence of crisis actors is generally used to argue that the incident in question was an outright hoax and that no one was killed, or, in a weaker version, that the shooting happened but that certain people were “planted” in advance in order to shape the narrative somehow.
Sometimes this is based on resemblances between people in different crises, as seen below. Some seem to have fallen victim to the so-called “other race effect” in face recognition: when someone is looking at a face of someone of another race, they’ll often confuse them for other members of that race. This is sometimes called the “they all look the same to me” effect.
Another facet of the “crisis actor” theories, the “bad acting” gambit point to victims, victims’ families, or witnesses displaying inappropriate emotions in interviews following the tragedy. They might appear strangely calm or flat, or even laugh despite what they’ve supposedly been through. If these people had really been victimized, surely they’d be sobbing uncontrollably. They’re not, so this proves they’re faking it – they’re crisis actors rather than real victims.
Grief is a pretty complicated thing. Research into the psychology of grief and mourning shows that people don’t always display the emotions that we expect them to in the aftermath of a tragic event. Crying is common, but strangely, so are paradoxical emotions like laughter. Research shows that there’s a tremendous variety of ways in which people respond to loss. Some laugh, some cry, some enter a dissociative state and display reactions that are out of step with reality. Beyond that, the media frenzy around mass shootings is hardly an ideal coping environment. Who knows people’s reactions could be affected when someone is thrust into a bizarre situation of bright lights and TV cameras everywhere?
Not only that, but many of the videos that claim to show “obvious lying” use cues for lie detection that work no better than chance. Humans simply aren’t very good natural lie detectors – even trained observers barely do better than chance levels of accuracy in favourable conditions.
- The motives
Almost immediately, people speculate about the real motive for the shooting (as opposed to whatever the official story might be). In the US, gun control is usually put forward as the primary motive for mass shooting conspiracy theories. The idea is that a mass shooting will shock the population into giving up its guns, which will allow the final takeover of the country by the New World Order. This ties the individual shooting theories into a larger narrative about sovereignty, control, and the Second Amendment.
About a week after any mass shooting, there’ll be a slew of blog posts and Youtube videos about “what they did while we were all distracted.” Now maybe gun control is a motive, but maybe the REAL motive is to occupy the news cycle and distract everyone from things like trade treaties, new laws, disease outbreaks, and so on.
Connection to some other conspiracy theory
Gun control isn’t always where things stop. Usually, a bit later, some other possible connections come out that suggest other motives or methods for the conspiracy. For example, David Hogg, an outspoken survivor of the Parkland shooting, has come under suspicion since his father is a retired FBI agent. Since conspiracy theories about Parkland have gained traction in the Trump-friendly media, and Trump’s not too hot on the FBI lately, this has led some people to speculate that the FBI alumni network is part of a Deep State conspiracy to discredit Trump.
Similarly, James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter, had a couple of things come up. He was a grad student in neuroscience, which brought up suspicions of a connection to some sort of mind-control project.* His father developed software that could be used to detect point-of-sale credit card fraud, so someone came up with the idea that he was about to be deposed for a LIBOR hearing the next week, and the mass shooting was a way of keeping him quiet (never mind that there were no such hearings, his expertise had nothing to do with interest rate manipulation, and it’s not really clear how framing his son for mass murder would keep him quiet). Likewise, Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, worked for the security company G4S at some point. G4S has had government contracts. Therefore, it’s not much of a leap to say that Mateen works for the government. (it kind of is)
- X is controlled opposition, Y is the real story
There are contradictory conspiracy theories about most major events, and mass shootings are no exception. About a week after any mass shooting, the stickied post in the conspiracy-theory community on Reddit will be a list of suspicious things about the shooting, most of which seem to point to completely separate conclusions. It’s not possible that there were multiple shooters, a single brainwashed mind-controlled shooter, and no shooters at all. Likewise, it’s not possible that it was both a targeted hit on a particular person and a complete hoax in which nobody actually died. Most people seem content to let these contradictions go unexamined and repeat, Trump-like, “something is going on,” but every so often advocates of the rival theories will clash. And in any argument between rival conspiracy theories, as time goes on, the probability that one side will accuse the other of being a tool of the conspiracy approaches 1. The false-flag, multiple-perpetrator crowd will accuse the staged-hoax, nobody-died crew of being planted by the conspirators to make everyone else look crazy. Meanwhile the staged-hoax, nobody died faction will claim that the false-flag, multiple-perpetrator theory is a “limited hangout” – a half-truth meant to distract people from the far more shocking reality that the whole thing is completely made up.
- Predictive programming
Mass shootings are usually accompanied by claims of predictive programming – in other words, claims that the shooting was “predicted” in some piece of media, often by the name of the city or perpetrator appearing in a big-budget movie from the past few years. Often this comes up quite a while after the fact, as it takes a while for people to find something that seems to match the shooting. The alleged motive here is that by inserting clues into fiction, the psychological impact of the event is somehow enhanced. I went into the psychological side of predictive programming in another post, but suffice it to say that there’s good reason to think it wouldn’t particularly work and these parallels are probably just coincidences.
Finally, a confession
I wrote most of this post a couple of years ago, around the time of the Orlando shooting, and never quite got around to finishing it. Almost nothing has changed. The crisis actor theories might have become more prominent in the last couple of years, and Trump is in the mix now, but otherwise this is just same shit, different shooting.
In other posts on this blog I’ve talked about the conspiracy mentality, or conspiracist ideation. I don’t think there’s a better example of a strong conspiracy mentality than the fact that there’s apparently a decent-sized crowd of people who think that mass shootings don’t happen – that all of them are fake, that if you peel back the curtain you’ll always find multiple shooters and crisis actors and MKULTRA. I don’t think there are any published psychological studies yet that look at why these events in particular attract so many of these theories. Of course, maybe that misses the bigger picture. Crisis actor theories aren’t restricted to mass shootings or terror attacks – there’s a small community on the David Icke forums that comes up with crisis actor theories about bus crashes in the UK (as far as I can tell from their posts, all bus crashes reported in the media are staged hoaxes by Big Seatbelt).