Jan 17 2013

Sandy Hook and Online Harassment

I was half expecting that this conspiracy theory, that the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax, would die on the vine, it’s so transparently absurd, but it appears to be gaining traction. I guess I should never underestimate the ability of conspiracy theorists to twist reality.

As I discussed last week – some conspiracy theorists are claiming that the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook either never happened or is a government hoax, designed to provide public support for gun control. As with all grand conspiracies, this one collapses under its own weight – literally an entire town would need to be involved in this conspiracy.

The conspiracy theorists have nothing to offer but anomaly hunting. For example, in this video it is claimed that one of the shooting victims is seen after the shooting with President Obama – this is offered as “absolute proof” of a hoax. However, the girl in the later video is simply the younger sister of the victim.

They are also trying to make hay out of interviews with the parents of the killed children, claiming that it is “obvious” that they are actors because of how they behave. This assumes they can accurately predict how someone will behave shortly after suffering such a horrific loss and simultaneously being thrust into the national spotlight. It is simplistic to assume that the parents should just be sobbing in grief continuously. People react differently to shock, and often complex emotions can battle with each other when discussing such an event.

The most popular video claiming the parents were actors is this one of Robert Parker. As the camera turns to him he appears to be laughing and then when he starts speaking about the death of his child he becomes very sad. First, he appears to be laughing in response to something that we do not see – so more context would be useful here. Second, I have had the experience myself of, shortly after a tragic loss, not expressing much emotion until I begin to talk about it with someone else. That’s normal – not suspicious.

In fact, if Parker were an actor I would think that he would be consciously in character the whole time. The presence of these emotional “anomalies,” if anything, are evidence that they are genuine. Real life is messy.

One person who has been particularly targeted by the “Sandy Hook Truthers” is Eugene Rosen. He lives close to the school and 6 children apparently fleeing the school wound up on his driveway. He brought them into his home until the police could come. Here is a video of a conspiracy theorist commenting on an interview with Rosen. It’s an excellent example of confirmation bias and anomaly hunting – notice how all the evidence is retrofitted into the conclusion of a conspiracy.

Again – he comments on his “performance” as if what we are seeing is not within the realm of normal human emotion. This is completely subjective and worthless as evidence for anything. More absurdly, at one point Rosen says “fatality” then changes to “casualty” and proceeds with his thought. This is not even a correction, just a different word choice, the kind of thing that happens in everyday conversation all the time, even without the pressure of being interviewed on national television. The conspiracy theorists, however, concludes that he made a mistake in the script and corrected himself.

(An a completely unnecessary aside – given the assumption that Rosen was an actor and not genuine, his appearance on an interview would not be “scripted,” it would be roleplaying. He would not be reciting a memorized script, but would be given a character and information and would then roleplay from there.)

The video then goes on to claim that because Rosen is shaking his head this is an unconscious movement betraying the fact that he is lying. This is pure “Lie to Me” nonsense. You cannot tell if someone is lying from their body language. Everyone is different in this respect, and discovering a “tell” is difficult and requires a great familiarity with the person. This claim is just pure pseudoscience.

The worst is that, based upon their simplistic anomaly hunting and naive and biased reasoning, some conspiracy theorists have been harassing Rosen. Salon reports:

“I don’t know what to do,” sighed Gene Rosen. “I’m getting hang-up calls, I’m getting some calls, I’m getting emails with, not direct threats, but accusations that I’m lying, that I’m a crisis actor, ‘how much am I being paid?’” Someone posted a photo of his house online. There have been phony Google+ and YouTube accounts created in his name, messages on white supremacist message boards ridiculing the “emotional Jewish guy,” and dozens of blog posts and videos “exposing” him as a fraud. One email purporting to be a business inquiry taunted: “How are all those little students doing? You know, the ones that showed up at your house after the ‘shooting’. What is the going rate for getting involved in a gov’t sponsored hoax anyway?”

In my previous post I expressed the opinion that “conspiracy thinking,” to a degree, plays a legitimate role in a democracy. It’s useful to question the government, ask if the media is doing their job adequately, and to independently investigate “official” stories about significant events. Conspiracy theorists often hide behind this and freedom of speech to justify what they do.

My main criticism for much popular conspiracy mongering is not that they are asking questions – it’s that they are doing a really bad job at it. Their questions are naive, their assumptions weak, their reasoning faulty, and their investigations superficial. In fact, if anything, if there were a real conspiracy out there, the rank and file internet conspiracy theorist would be completely incompetent to detect and expose it, and their clumsy conspiracy mongering would provide cover for the real conspiracy.

We can also add – they are harassing jerks – to the list of the many failures of popular conspiracy mongering. If their goal were to completely discredit those who question the government about such things, they wold be doing a great job

19 responses so far

19 thoughts on “Sandy Hook and Online Harassment”

  1. SARA says:

    I find it interesting that Rosen, a non-parent, is the biggest target. If you actually believe that the entire thing is big fake, than you don’t show any deference to the parents who just lost someone. They should be getting a great deal more harassment than Rosen.

    This whole thing feels like troll behavior. It makes me wonder what percentage of the people who are doing the harassing are real “believers” of the conspiracy and what proportion are just trolls looking for something to stir up.

  2. SARA says:

    You know what? That last idea of mine seems sort of conspiracy-ish.
    “It makes me wonder what percentage of the people who are doing the harassing are real “believers” of the conspiracy and what proportion are just trolls looking for something to stir up.”


  3. RickK says:

    Ironic coming from an anonymously named poster, but is anonymous communication a net positive for society? I’ve been wondering this for a while. There’s no “right” to anonymity, and it clearly contributes to social divisiveness, and it allows people to take positions just for the fun of being extreme (trolling) without taking the responsibility for their actions.

    Our society really should be able to confront people who choose to harass the grieving relatives of Sandy Hook victims.

  4. Mark says:

    Being a former conspiracy nut, I knew immediately that Sandy Hook would be fingered as a government conspiracy to take our guns away.

  5. Paul Parnell says:


    Thats Poe’s paradox or a generalization of it:

    “In any fundamentalist group, a paradox exists where any new person (or idea) sufficiently fundamentalist to be accepted by the group is likely to be so ridiculous that they risk being rejected as a parodist (or parody).”

  6. Marshall says:

    Hi Steve–

    Great post as always. Would you consider doing a blog post on your “Lie to Me” comment? In other words–how well can we detect whether someone is lying? This includes not only body language, but things like polygraphs. I’ll post this in the suggestions.


  7. jre says:

    Your point regarding the value to society of conspiracy theorists is very much on point. Matt Taibbi said much the same thing about 9/11 truthers: “[I]nstead of entertaining dozens of theories simultaneously, what real investigators do is follow the evidence and try to actually come up with a single theory of the crime.”

    If conspiracy buffs applied a little discipline to their practice, they could add value by discovering and correcting weaknesses in reporting and investigation. Instead, they mostly just contribute to the cloud of smoke.

  8. Technogeek says:

    RickK, the fundamental flaw in your assumption is that mandating the use of real names will cause people to behave better. Judging from 99 percent of Facebook, that strikes me as a questionable assumption at best.

  9. SARA says:

    I agree. I think it’s the perceived distance of internet communication that gives people the willingness to be cruel or to state things that would never come out of their mouths in a face to face encounter.

    The other factor is no “real world” knowledge of the people who will read their words. Again, that puts them at a distance from the people who react to their words.

    I do think being anonymous is also a factor though. It allows people to do things they might otherwise have to face some legal action for.

  10. I once got a scathing e-mail from a true believer. I responded in my usual professional manner. The e-mailer then responded, embarrassed, something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize there would be a real person at the other end of my e-mail. I thought I was sending it out to the ether.”

  11. Steven, the emailer obviously didn’t realize that you’re just a very well programmed computer (Orac’s cousin, perhaps?) that is capable of passing the Turning Test (and responding to emails) that was built to help spread government misinformation as well as occasionally buying concert tickets via Captcha. 🙂

  12. wendy0962 says:

    I have family in Bethel, CT and now because of a pendant that I designed I have many customers in other surrounding towns. These people are devastated. The massacre itself is bad enough but then these idiots with their conspiracy theories is just unfathomable.

    I designed a unique pendant to honor the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook School massacre. After wracking my brain trying to come up with a way to show my support I created this design to remember the victims and to help the families. All proceeds (100%) are being donated to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund through the Western CT United Way.

    So instead of supporting the conspiracy theorists support the community. It is not just about gun control. It is about caring about fellow human beings. If you are interested in the pendant you can learn more here: http://www.simplyremembered.com/index.php/jewelry/spirit-tree-pendant-detail

  13. HHC says:

    We have in our society a lack of compassion to empathize with others, as shown by this evidence. No one can make a hater, or person who enjoys baiting to care about anything but their fantasy world. Guns linked to insane violence entertain these individuals. Gratefully, the FBI has been asked to look into these matters to maintain the civil rights we have in this country. We have not lost our ability to feel, to grieve in our own way and express our cultural identity.

  14. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I know someone who buys the JFK and 9/11 conspiracies, but then this nutty idea came along and suddenly it’s “how can anyone believe something so crazy?”


  15. rezistnzisfutl says:

    Perhaps the reason why this conspiracy theory has gained more traction in the general public than, say, 9/11, is that it deals directly with gun control, which is anathema to much of the population. With 9/11, we already went to war and it didn’t directly affect most of the public. This, on the other hand, has the potential to directly affect the public. Combine that with the misinformation going around about what is being proposed in congress by pundits like Fox News and Alex Jones, and you’ll get more people who’ll accept it.

    I also think there are a lot of people who just can’t handle the utter tragedy of this event. It’s too ugly and it involves subjects that are so taboo and heinous, that perhaps it’s easier for them to gravitate toward a more pleasant fiction (perhaps not dissimilar to the human impulse to think that a deceased loved one lives on in a supernatural paradise and they’ll reunite with them someday rather than accept a cold hard reality of the end being the end, forever).

    It goes back to what Dr. Novella was saying about conspiracy theorists in general in a previous blog article, that the world is ugly, senseless, messy, and chaotic, and it’s comforting to think that there are actually reasons for these things occur (imagined or not), that they see the real truth, and if they can just get enough people to believe them they can do something about it and have control over the big, scary world.

  16. Sawyer says:

    “In fact, if anything, if there were a real conspiracy out there, the rank and file internet conspiracy theorist would be completely incompetent to detect and expose it, and their clumsy conspiracy mongering would provide cover for the real conspiracy.”

    Absolutely agree. This is the thing that utterly infuriates me about conspiracy theorists. Sometime in the next 100 years there will be a REAL conspiracy that’s worth getting pissed off about, and no one will notice thanks to their minefield of nonsense and noise.

  17. Bronze Dog says:

    One of the biggest problems I see in conspiracy theorists JAQing off: They think reality is unrealistic. In this case, they think grief makes people behave exactly like academy award winners performing a tragic scene instead of being aware of the diversity of human emotional responses.

  18. BillyJoe7 says:

    In Australia, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murdering her child essentially as a result of her blunted emotional response when talking in public about her daughter’s death. Everyone you talked to seemed to be convinced she was quilty and cited her lack of emotion as the reason they thought so. Nobody seemed interested in the lack of actual evidence. Lindy Chamberlain claimed a dingo took her baby. Many years later, her daughter’s matinee jacket was found by a tourist. This confirmed her story and eventually led to her conviction being overturned.

  19. Christopher_NW says:

    It made me sick reading about the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, but even worse was the disgusting “memes” idiots put up.

Leave a Reply