Many are still reeling from the May 24, 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. Since Uvalde, 57 more mass shootings have occurred (up through noon on June 18, 2022), according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting this way: "if four or more people are shot or killed in a single incident, not including the shooter, that incident is categorized as a mass shooting based purely on that numerical threshold."
Given these very real events, it is difficult for me to understand how so many people believe the conspiracy theories positing that this gun violence doesn't exist — that events like Sandy Hook or the Uvalde massacre are "false flag" events filled with "crisis actors" and orchestrated by individuals and groups whose agenda is gun control. And yet, this is exactly what one-fifth of Americans currently believe.
According to research by PolitiFact, false flag conspiracies about mass shootings are not new, and some trace their appearance to 2012, as such conspiracy theories arose in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. PolitiFact explains:
"The way we've been paying attention to it in recent years has really come about from Sandy Hook," said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who researches conspiracy theories.
Alex Jones, owner of the site InfoWars and a known peddler of misinformation, suggested that the tragedy was "fake" and that the shooting was a "false flag" attack coordinated by the government.
It was plainly untrue, and so incendiary that it got a lot of media attention. And so now, with each shooting, it always pops up that it's a false flag, Uscinski says.
Google Trends data indicate that Uscinski has a point.
Search queries for the term "false flag" over the past five years have spiked during mass shootings, including those at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs (November 2015) and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando (June 2016).
These trends have continued since the PolitiFact article was published in 2019, as such theories are no longer peddled only by fringe pundits such as Alex Jones and non-mainstream sites like 4chan and 8chan. Instead, they are spread widely through Facebook and other social media sites by ordinary, everyday people. Micah Sifry explains just how many people believe such theories:
A 2013 poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that a quarter of all Americans thought that the facts about Sandy Hook were being hidden, and an additional 11 percent were unsure. Joe Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor who studies conspiracy theories, tells Williamson that according to his research, as of 2020, one-fifth of all Americans believed that every school shooting was faked. And not just school shootings; Uscinski says virtually all high-profile mass shootings draw this level of doubt.
To help make sense of why so many people believe such theories, New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson recently published a book with Dutton entitled Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. The publisher's description of the book reads:
Based on hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and access to exclusive sources and materials, Sandy Hook is Elizabeth Williamson's landmark investigation of the aftermath of a school shooting, the work of Sandy Hook parents who fought to defend themselves, and the truth of their children's fate against the frenzied distortions of online deniers and conspiracy theorists.
Williamson also just published an article on Slate where she provides an overview of the book, and presents a fascinating look of one of the Sandy Hook deniers she interviewed for the book, a woman named Kelley Watt — one of those "ordinary, everyday people" I mentioned above who stumble upon these conspiracy theories and use their social media platforms to spread their lies.
Here's an excerpt from the article, which I read with a gaping mouth, as each paragraph was more shocking than the next. I can't wait to read the book, which I'm sure is equally horrifying. But it's imperative to understand these political conspiracies, especially when so many people believe them and they cause so much harm.
When we spoke, I asked her whether she doubted Sandy Hook because first grade children being murdered in their classrooms was too hard for her to face. "No. I just had a strong sense that this didn't happen," she said. "Too many of those parents just rub me the wrong way."
She judged the parents as "too old to have kids that age." She found their clothes dowdy, their hairstyles dated. Where were their "messy buns," "cute torn jeans," their "Tory Burch jewelry"? She mocked their broken stoicism. Their lives had fallen to pieces, but in Watt's mind they seemed "too perfect," and also not perfect enough.
Watt had read widely about the shooting and the families, choosing from each account only the facts that suited her false narrative.
She brought up Chris and Lynn McDonnell, parents of 7-year-old Grace, a child with striking pale blue eyes who liked to paint. Lynn McDonnell told CNN's Anderson Cooper that Grace had drawn a peace sign and the message "Grace Loves Mommy" in the fogged bathroom mirror after her shower, leaving traces her mother found after her death. She described the abyss she felt upon seeing her daughter's white casket and recalled how she, Chris, and Grace's brother, Jack, used markers to fill its stark emptiness with colorful drawings of things Grace loved.
Watt mocked this reminiscence in a singsong tone. "'Ohhhhh, Grace. She loved loved loved loved loved Sandy Hook, and we're glad she's in heaven with her teacher, and she's with her classmates, and we feel good about that,'" she said. "'She had a white coffin, and we busted out the Sharpies and drew a skillet and a sailboat.' NOBODY CRIED," she barked.
Watt's feral lack of empathy astonished me. Watt a few minutes earlier had boasted about her son Jordan's voracious reading habits and how well her daughter, Madison, played the piano. If Watt's children died, wouldn't she also speak highly of them and their gifts?
"No. This was to build up the sympathy factor," she said. "I think they're people with a gun control agenda.