Sadly - and predictably - the mass shooting in San Bernardino earlier this week spawned conspiracy theories. Moments after the news breaking, according to Vocativ.com, conspiracy theorists took to social media to proclaim the event a hoax:
Before anyone knew the death toll, motive or identity of the shooters, many wise Americans were certain that the San Bernardino shooting was orchestrated by the Obama Administration.
News of a shooting in San Bernardino broke at 11:26 PST. Vocativ discovered that literally one minute later, at 11:27 PST, the first Truther posted a #FalseFlag tweet. For the uninitiated ‘sheep' out there, ‘false flag' is a conspiracy-theorist term used to describe a covert government attack against its own citizens. In the first six hours following the massacre, 663 people tweeted about a false-flag attack in San Bernardino.
Shootings and acts of violence have long been grist for conspiracy theorists dating back at least to the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination. However it has only been in the past few years that mass shootings have been routinely cast as staged "false flag" events designed to provide an excuse for the government – specifically the Obama administration - to declare martial law and confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens.
The 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting is perhaps the highest-profile example, in which victims were allegedly photographed visiting with Obama after they supposedly died; some people have even claimed, wrongly, that the school could not have been attacked in 2012 because it had been shut down in 2009.
There are several reasons why mass shootings spur conspiracies. One reason is that conspiracies, once the domain of tinfoil hatted shut-ins, has become mainstream. Popular right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, for example, has huge audiences and been praised by presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who himself has unabashedly employed several conspiracy theories in his political rhetoric - most famously asserting that President Obama is a Muslim whose Hawaiian birth certificate is fraudulent.
The mass shooting conspiracy theories circulate widely because they are used as a vehicle for social protest. In their book "American Conspiracy Theories," Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, both associate professors at the University of Miami, note:
"Conspiracy theories ignite when socialized motive meets political opportunity ... lots of people have conspiracy theories that no one else cares about, and appeals to the most conspiracy-prone people are unlikely to reverberate widely. Therefore, conspiracy theories that involve the biggest groups, biggest gains, and biggest foes will gain the most adherents."
What's at stake, according to many conspiracy theorists, is nothing less than the American way of life.
Politics and Symbolic Truths As American politics becomes more contentious and the cultural divide between Democrats and Republicans becomes wider and more politicized, the conspiracies that each uses to attack the other become more prominent. Many conspiracy theories - especially those involving shootings and government cover-ups - are widely shared because they help promote a specific social or political agenda.
Mass shootings would, at first glance, seem a very unlikely and essentially impossible event to fake. Not only would dozens or hundreds of eyewitnesses, police officers, crisis actors and others be involved (and somehow silenced), but there's the undeniable deaths of real people.
If the whole thing was faked, that means the victims who were living normal ordinary lives until the horrific attacks either somehow never really existed - thus all the employment, school, medical and other records dating back decades were faked, along with their friends and families pretending to have known them. Or they were cynically sacrificed by an evil government who had them killed, with the collusion of hundreds of others – all to provide yet another opportunity to take away guns.
If this all sounds far-fetched, it should. But the literal truth of a given specific conspiracy claim (that Obama was born in Kenya, for example, or that the San Bernardino mass shooting was faked) is far less important to the person sharing it than the larger symbolic "truth" it represents: Obama and/or the U.S. government is a threat to freedom and American civil liberties.The person sharing the conspiracy theory need not even really believe it-and may in fact completely doubt it-but it doesn't matter because it's a symbolic protest.
The indisputable fact that none of the countless faked or "false flag" events over the years have actually resulted in martial law or nationwide gun confiscations doesn't seem to bother conspiracy theorists, who credit their patriotic vigilance with thwarting Obama's plans. Ironically, in the San Bernardino shootings, the emerging picture does indeed point to the attack as an act of conspiracy; the shooting had apparently been planned for weeks or months, and at least three people had a role in arranging it.
Similarly, the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were without doubt the result of a conspiracy-among Osama bin Laden, the hijackers, and others affiliated with Al Qaeda. Those real-life, proven conspiracies are not only too simple and uninteresting for theorists to believe or share, they also don't help further an agenda.