Crawford is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.
Conspiracy theories are powerful forces in the United States. They damaged public health amid a global pandemic, shattered faith in the democratic process and helped spark a violent attack on the United States Capitol in January 2021.
These conspiracy theories are part of a dangerous crisis of disinformation that has been developing in the United States for years
American politics have long had a paranoid tendency, and belief in conspiracy theories is nothing new. But as the news cycle reminds us daily, the wacky conspiracy theories born on social media are now regularly accepted by the general public and are picked up by those in power.
As a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, I studied the disinformation surrounding the mass shooting that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. I consider it the first major theory of the conspiracy of the modern age of social media, and I believe we can trace our current predicament to the aftermath of tragedy.
Nine years ago, the Sandy Hook shooting showed how fringe ideas could quickly become mainstream on social media and gain the support of various establishment figures, even when the conspiracy theory targeted grieving families of young people. students and school staff killed in the massacre.
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Those who claimed the tragedy was a hoax showed up in Newtown, Connecticut, and harassed people linked to the shooting. This provided a first example of how misinformation disseminated on social media could wreak havoc in the real world.
New era of social media and mistrust
The role of social media in spreading disinformation has been well documented in recent years. The year of the Sandy Hook shooting, 2012, marked the first year that more than half of all American adults have used social media.
It also marked a modern decline in public confidence in the media. Gallup’s annual survey has since shown even lower levels of media trust in 2016 and 2021.
These two coincident trends – which continue to generate misinformation – quickly cast doubt on Sandy Hook in the American mainstream. Speculation that the shooting was a false flag – an attack made to make it look like it had been committed by someone else – started circulating on Twitter and other social media sites almost immediately. Far-right commentator and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and other fringe voices amplified these false claims.
Jones was recently found liable by default in defamation cases filed by the families of Sandy Hook.
Errors in the latest reports on the shooting, such as conflicting information about the weapon used and the identity of the shooter, have been bundled together in YouTube videos and compiled on blogs as evidence of a conspiracy, as shown by my research. Amateur sleuths collaborated on Facebook groups that presented the shooting as a hoax and lured new users into the rabbit hole.
Soon, various establishment figures, including the 2010 Republican candidate for Connecticut attorney general, Martha Dean, gave credence to doubts about the tragedy.
Six months later, as gun control legislation stalled in Congress, a university poll found that one in four believed the truth about Sandy Hook was being hidden to advance a political agenda. Many others said they weren’t sure. The results were so incredible that some media questioned the accuracy of the poll.
Today, other conspiracy theories have followed a similar trajectory on social media. The media are teeming with stories of the popularity of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy movement, which falsely claims the top Democrats are part of a Satan-worshiping pedophile ring. A member of Congress, United States Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, has also publicly denied Sandy Hook and other mass shootings.
But in 2012, the spread of wacky conspiracy theories from social media to the general public was a relatively new phenomenon and an indication of what was to come.
New breed of conspiracies
Sandy Hook also marked a turning point in the nature of conspiracy theories and their targets. Before Sandy Hook, popular American conspiracy theories generally vilified elites or dark forces in government. Many “real” 9/11 people, for example, thought the government was behind the terrorist attacks, but generally left the families of the victims alone.
Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists have accused family members of those killed, shooting survivors, religious leaders, neighbors and first responders of being part of a government conspiracy.
Parents in Newtown have been accused of faking the death of their children or their very existence. There were also allegations that they were part of a child sex sect.
This shift in conspiracy targets, from veiled government and elite figures to ordinary people, marked a shift in the trajectory of American conspiracy theories.
Since Sandy Hook, survivors of many other high-profile shootings and mass attacks, such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Charlottesville car attack, have seen their trauma compounded by denial of their tragedies. .
And the perverse idea of ââa politically connected pedophile ring became a key principle in two subsequent conspiracy theories: Pizzagate and QAnon.
The kind of harassment and death threats targeting Sandy Hook families have also become a common fallout from conspiracy theories. In the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, the owners and employees of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, believed to be part of a pedophile ring including politicians continue to be targeted by followers of this conspiracy theory. In 2016, a man traveled hundreds of kilometers to investigate and fired his assault rifle in the restaurant.
Some people who remain skeptical of the COVID-19 pandemic have harassed frontline health workers. Local election officials across the country have been threatened and accused of being part of a plot to steal the 2020 presidential election.
The legacy of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook is one of disinformation – the start of a crisis that will likely affect the United States for years to come.
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