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

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