I couldn’t believe it when this week one of my students at the university where I work approached me in some level of distress. She wanted to know if I had seen the “compelling” video on the internet questioning the validity of the “mainstream media’s story” about the Sandy Hook tragedy. She insisted that she didn’t know what to believe after her adult daughter made her watch the video and she was looking to me for some guidance. I was alarmed by this encounter for several reasons:
- This student is a liberal, Obama supporter who voted for him twice. This isn’t speculation. I know her well, and she doesn’t harbor secret conservative tendencies.
- This is an educated, middle-aged woman in the last semester of her senior year of college questioning the truth of a flagrantly bizarre conspiracy theory.
- A conspiracy I considered to be isolated to the fringes of American society was circulating in a very conventional, Midwestern household that doesn’t even own guns.
- The ridiculous addition of a university professor to the voices of conspiracy nuts was lending credibility to this apparently viral “theory.”
Simple reassurance and appeals to common sense worked well enough to allay my students’ fears that Sandy Hook was a pre-planned attack designed to confiscate guns. However, I could tell she harbored remnants of doubt. Her biggest source of doubt stemmed from the “evidence” that there were allegedly Facebook posts and webpages with timestamps that occurred prior to the incident. I realized older people who don’t have sophisticated technological knowledge could easily be duped by these circulating emails and videos. Knowing my own liberal mother’s vulnerability to viral nonsense sent by conservative relatives, I am just waiting for her alarmed phone call querying whether I’ve seen the “convincing” evidence of a Sandy Hook conspiracy (one Sandy Hook conspiracy YouTube video already had 10.6 million views as of Friday morning).
Apparently, even people who don’t live in survivalist bunkers really are being influenced by this sickening nonsense. Another person showing he was easily duped was Washington Nationals outfielder Denald Span who tweeted, “I was watching some controversial stuff on YouTube about the sandy hooks thing today! It really makes u think and wonder.” The comments on the Deadspin.com article discussing his tweet are disheartening indeed, as they are also teeming with conspiracy questioners.
Ben Smith and CJ Lotz at Buzzfeed.com wrote in their article, “Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories Edge Toward the Mainstream,” “The theory is ludicrous, but there is hard evidence that it has begun to go viral.” Seeing this phenomenon, some have taken the step to write up articles debunking the conspiracy, including Snopes.com. In many of these debunking articles, people making comments on the article snipe that no one should be debunking the theory, because a) people who believe the theory won’t listen to facts anyway, and b) it gives credence to the theory to dignify it with a response. Dave Weigel makes essentially the same argument in his article at Slate.com. But, Weigel and these commenters couldn’t be more wrong. After locating these debunking resources, I emailed them to my student, and I am confident that the explanations of how technology can end up with seemingly incongruous time stamps put the final nail in the coffin of her doubts about the notion the tragedy is a hoax. To let ideas fester without a response is an excellent way for those ideas to go unchallenged to the point of establishing their validity. Just ask John Kerry about the Swift Boat ads. Not everyone who believed them was a flaming reactionary Republican. As Smith and Lotz point out,
“The media is often reluctant to engage such theories directly. The political press spent much of 2007 and 2008 ignoring grassroots conservative beliefs that President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, and that his wife had thrown around the epithet ‘whitey.’ But both of those eventually became so widespread, embraced by local elected officials and other public figures that they were impossible to ignore.”
Getting out in front of this absurd hoax may help prevent some of its spread. Alex Seitz-Wald agrees with me as I discovered he also makes the case for debunking the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory at Alternet/Salon.com.
This week also brought the results of another poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University on the birther conspiracy revealing that fully 64% of Republicans now buy into the idea that Obama is hiding the truth about where he was born. Remarkably, this poll also found that 14% of Democrats and 17% of African Americans also believe the birther conspiracy. There is more support for the birther conspiracy (36% nationally), which is easily refutable with a glance at the Hawaiian newspaper birth announcements from the day the President was born, than the 9/11 truther conspiracy that Bush knew the attacks were coming (25% nationally), which arguably has more suggestive evidence (there was, in fact, at least a memo declaring an attack was imminent). Analyst for the poll, Dan Cassino, is quoted as saying, “People tend to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire – so the more smoke they see, the more likely they are to believe that something is going on.” Cassino also stated that as memories of events fade, conspiracy theories only intensify.
Americans are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories, having had them as a substantial part of American culture since the beginning of the country. If Cassino is right, the latest conspiracy theory about Sandy Hook is likely to gain traction as time goes by. The sad truth is that if there is any conspiracy going on in this country, it is the conspiracy President Clinton has pointed out, of the right wing trying to sabotage the presidency of Barack Obama.
It is difficult to imagine a more reprehensible slap in the face to the victims of this tragedy. In the case of 9/11, the only victim of the conspiracy theory is the Bush administration. When the right wing circulated far-fetched conspiracy rumors about Clinton murdering Vince Foster, only the former President was a target. In the case of Sandy Hook, the victims of the conspiracy theory include the victims of the tragedy themselves who have been accused of being in on the conspiracy as well. In their time of mourning, they are under attack from crazed fanatics who suggest that they are actually hiding their children to help Obama confiscate guns. For this, there is scarcely anything more shameful about those who propagate such theories to begin with.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.