Sandy Hook 'truthers' harass Newtown man, conspiracy theories go viral

Sandy Hook truthers have attacked Gene Rosen, who took in six terrified children right after the shooting. The conspiracy theories stem from a distrust of government and media, among other things.

Joshua Lott/Reuters
Sandy Hook 'truthers' are criticizing Gene Rosen, who took in six Sandy Hook schoolchildren after the shooting. Conspiracy theorists have edited video footage of Rosen, claiming it proves he is a paid actor.

With talk of a second shooter, Israeli death squads, and connections to “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Sandy Hook shooting has joined the ranks of other tragedies associated with conspiracy theories.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.