Just days after 20 first-graders and six adults were shot and killed at the school in Newtown, Conn., alternative theories and wild claims began circulating. In recent days, one Newtown man who helped survivors of the shooting has come under attack.
Some of the conjectures have arisen out of distrust of the government and media outlets. In other cases, they've gotten traction because they offer an explanation, when the "why" of the shooting has been elusive. A desire to deflect blame, for example away from guns, could also be at work.
In almost all instances, the Internet has been key to the claims' proliferation.
“The Web seems to be the new home of the conspiracy theory. It’s where conspiracy theories live, because the Web is so good at virally spreading around these kinds of little stories,” says Jeffrey L. Pasley, an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he teaches a class on conspiracy theories.
Individuals questioning the mainstream account of events have already been dubbed Sandy Hook truthers. They're turning to websites like SandyHookHoax.com, questionable photos, and YouTube videos that take issue with reporting on the day of the shooting.
One person the truthers have zeroed in on is Gene Rosen, a Newtown man who took in six terrified students the morning of the shooting. He gave interviews to various media outlets afterward, and since then, he's been accused of being an actor paid to play a part. Fake Facebook profiles have been created in his name, and footage of the interviews with him has been edited and reposted, purportedly proving that Mr. Rosen is an actor.
“I don’t know what to do,” Rosen, a retired psychologist, told Salon. “I’m getting hang-up calls, I’m getting some calls, I’m getting e-mails with, not direct threats, but accusations that I’m lying, that I’m a crisis actor, ‘How much am I being paid?' ”
The underlying theme in all the theories is that the media, the government, and Obama administration specifically either manipulated or orchestrated the shooting to move political opinion on gun control. In particular, a comprehensive truther video focuses on discrepancies in initial reporting about the number and types of guns used by Adam Lanza.
Conspiracy theories are often used as a way of deflecting blame, Professor Pasley says. “If you’re a gun owner, you don’t want it all blamed on your group. So you adopt a conspiracy theory that blames it on someone else,” he says.
“Naturally people start coming up with different stories that aren’t about how having a house full of weapons is likely to lead to some sort of tragedy,” Pasley adds.
With the enormity of the shooting, it was apparent that gun violence was going to be in the national spotlight, writes LiveScience columnist Benjamin Radford.
"No one, regardless of what side of the gun control issue they are on, can deny that guns played a key role in the Sandy Hook killings," he writes. "So the conspiracy theorists must instead challenge the claim that the attack even occurred."
Indeed, some truthers have questioned whether the shooting happened at all. Many of these doubts came about because of inaccurate or muddled reporting in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
On Dec. 20, James Tracy, a Florida Atlantic University tenured professor of communication, wrote a well-sourced blog post, and later gave media interviews, arguing that contradictions in initial reporting proved that the Sandy Hook shooting was simply a “made-for-television storyline.” He placed responsibility with the mass media, saying they blindly believed and reported what officials told them.
After public criticism of Professor Tracy and the university, he backpedaled a bit, insisting his blog post was simply a way to encourage news consumers to think critically. But he still implied he takes issue with the basic facts that were reported about the shooting.
At least so far, mass media have not delved much into the claims surrounding Sandy Hook. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, for one, has criticized Tracy and other truthers. Although other media outlets have reported the harassment of Rosen in detail, The Atlantic is one of the few news organizations to actually parse some of the theories and debunk them. It tackled the theory of a second shooter, reporting that a man whom police had initially pursued was most likely the father of a Sandy Hook student who was on the school grounds after the shooting.
Other media outlets, notably The New York Times, apologized for inaccurate reports when news of the shooting broke. Much of the “evidence” cited by conspiracy theorists is reporting that was later clarified.
Mr. Radford theorizes that while most observers understand that inaccurate reporting happens immediately after a chaotic event, the conspiratorial mind sees contradictions as "misinformation and lies," or holes in the official story.
Yet for some people, conspiracy theories can serve an important purpose, says Pasley, who has taught and studied such claims off and on since 1997.
“Conspiracy theories do have a function,” he says. “They are an explanation of the inexplicable, a sort of explanation that neatly puts into a box events that are extremely disturbing or tragic.”
They may be a way of "neutralizing" tragic events in the minds of theorists, Pasley adds.