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SOCIETAL AND EDUCATIONAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES ABOUT SCHOOL SHOOTINGS IN THE US

Laura Vasile, Maria Zuppello, Counter Threat Strategic Communications (CTSC) Team

Week of Monday, January 17, 2022


US protest against school shootings[1]


Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012, conspiracy theories about school shootings have risen exponentially.[2] The growing use of social networks and hyper-competition between online information and traditional media are among the factors that have increased the misinformation used to feed these conspiracy theories.[3] These beliefs likely have a social and political impact since they likely weaken people's trust in institutions and spawn more extensive conspiracy theories. Media and educational institutions should increase awareness and information monitoring, while social media platforms should update their algorithms and software, and ​​enhance both the quantity and quality of human moderators to contain the spread of these theories.


The most popular school shooting conspiracy theories to date concern the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, US. They posit that the school shooting was a hoax arranged by the government to increase the scope of gun control laws and that those involved were paid actors.[4] Negating the attack very likely impacts the lives of those affected by school shootings, especially the victims and their families. Such events can create long-term mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which very likely create difficulties for victims and their families to process and move past the attack. Conspiracy theories about school shootings invalidate the emotional trauma of those involved and condemn them for willingly taking part in a supposed hoax aimed at manipulating the public.[5] Being harassed by conspiracy theorists likely reduces victims' and their families' willingness to speak about their experience; their silence would likely reinforce conspiracy theories, while being vocal about it would likely help disprove the misinformation posited by the conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists are very likely to exploit their silence to propagate the misinformation that school shootings are hoaxes, causing further emotional damage to victims and families.


Alex Jones, an American radio show host, was one of the most outspoken public personalities who claimed that the Sandy Hook attack was a hoax.[6] Jones continued to create and spread conspiracy theories on other topics after Sandy Hook victims’ families sued Jones for defamation and won.[7] Jones was linked to QAnon conspiracy theories[8] and is currently being investigated for his alleged contribution to the January 6, 2021 US Capitol attack.[9] Jones’ support of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories and later alleged involvement in the Capitol attack likely illustrates how conspiracy theories generally complement one another, leading to further radicalization into a conspiracy theory movement. When a conspiracy theorist earns individuals' trust and delegitimizes school shootings, their audience is unlikely to trust sources with contradicting information. The audience will also likely begin believing in other conspiracy theories spread by the conspiracy theorist they follow, such as QAnon conspiracy theories. This can likely incite violence as it polarizes opinions about school shootings. Believing in school shooting conspiracy theories very likely creates a sense of distrust in the government, as their narrative is that the government fakes these events to advance its political agenda. This likely creates a risk of violence as seen in the Capitol attack because individuals likely feel frustrated due to what they perceive as deception from their government. Violence could very likely escalate concerning school shooting conspiracy theories, and harassment of Sandy Hook victims’ families could likely represent the initial step in that direction.


School shooting conspiracy theories impact political opinions.[10] US citizens’ beliefs that the government orchestrated the Sandy Hook shooting to restrict gun access will likely create distrust in elected officials. These individuals could likely perceive that their right to access guns, and implicitly their right to protect themselves, is threatened by the government. Similar conspiracy rhetoric will likely continue to exist in future cases of school shootings. This misinformation, which polarizes opinions, could likely impact political elections and lead to protests. These conspiracy theories likely benefit gun lobbyists because they amplify the conspiratorial idea of gun control that the same lobbies promote, contributing to the debate that seeks to prevent gun reform. Members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) are likely to endorse these conspiracy theories by contacting conspiracy theorists and offering assistance, such as covering legal costs in case of trials or funding their websites. Consequently, conspiracy theories about school shootings are likely to gain traction and spread further. School shooting conspiracy theories likely also contribute to far-right groups’ conspiracy theories, such as the Proud Boys, who have embraced the same messaging about guns.


The sense of distrust in the government can likely be utilized to advance foreign political purposes. Russian social media accounts utilized online platforms to polarize American views following the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas attack in Parkland, Florida, US.[11] Erroneous information went viral on social media, deceiving US users.[12] US political instability and distrust in the government, media, or other actors who are deemed responsible for the deception likely strengthen Russia’s political position. Other foreign governments will likely use these theories for political purposes and even asymmetrical warfare, which likely puts a country's security at risk in the long run. By challenging the US and its allies through asymmetrical warfare without using military force, non-US allies could likely tarnish the nation's international image and exacerbate its internal polarization. Non-US allies can likely spread school shooting conspiracy theories to reinforce distrust in the US government, furthering their political agendas.


Many journalists’ initial reports on the Sandy Hook shooting contained false information, such as contradicting information on the weapons used and the number of shooters, which later reinforced conspiracy theories about the attack.[13] Misinformation regarding school shootings has expanded since this event due to the exponential growth of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.[14] The hyper-competitiveness fostered by social media platforms, which enables anyone, including non-journalists, to provide information about the attack or publish footage in real-time, is likely a contributor to these journalistic mistakes. Many journalists likely use anonymous law enforcement sources for information or interview unreliable witnesses to quickly obtain information and upload their reports first since official information may be released at a slower pace. Viewers likely take screenshots of initial reports and use them to feed conspiracy theories, even if journalists update their reports. As news articles run on various outlets, people will likely find original stories still on news outlets' websites without any corrections or updates. Journalists’ videos of witnesses and victims' families are likely edited, repurposed, spliced together, and republished online to support false narratives. Through these videos, viewers will likely scrutinize the families' grief online, which will likely lead the viewers to question the veracity of feelings and events.


In 2013, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper debunked a Sandy Hook conspiracy theory spread by a Florida Atlantic University professor. As hundreds of news outlets had already reported on the conspiracy theory as fact, Cooper’s debunking very likely did not have a successful impact due to the large volume of misinformation already available on the topic.[15] Since most people see media outlets as legitimate sources of news, they likely have a higher influence on the general population than regular social media posts. Media coverage of conspiracy theories about school shootings likely reinforces the theories because many media outlets share links to YouTube videos, Facebook groups, and blogs that promote these conspiracy theories, introducing new viewers to the conspiracy theories and expanding their audience. Many media outlets do not hide conspiracy theorists' names, which likely contributes to the general population searching out conspiracy theory content. As more people search for conspiracy theorists’ names, these names are more likely to surface in online searches due to social media algorithms, amplifying their fame. If debunking articles do not focus on basic facts, such as the hoax claim and the people involved in it, or if they do not provide explicit warning that the information is false, they are likely to have the opposite impact and reinforce false beliefs. The lack of quick, consistent debunking and the failure to expose the media platforms that spread this misinformation likely make debunking analysis ineffective.


In February 2021, US lawmakers removed US House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from the House Education and Labor Committee for endorsing conspiracy theories claiming that mass school shootings were hoaxes.[16] Congressional politicians embracing conspiracy theories about school shootings likely have an impact on House policies since any member of Congress can introduce, co-sponsor, or vote on legislation. Politicians' influence and importance likely make the conspiracy theories they endorse seem more credible. These conspiracy theories are also likely to be exploited for electoral purposes. School shooting conspiracy theories likely exacerbate existing political divisions and increase violence given that many of these theories blame specific groups for staging fake attacks, such as government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).[17] Since conspiracy theories reduce trust in government or public institutions, far-right politicians are likely to use them to push their political agenda and present themselves as the political alternative needed to restore trust.

Several countermeasures have been implemented to date, including the prosecution of school shooting conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones, who a US judge found liable for his Sandy Hook conspiracy theory.[18] Conspiracy theorists’ convictions likely serve as a deterrent, reducing copycat behavior. People will likely feel compelled to examine the credibility of these beliefs and their risks before embracing them. Many media outlets have warned the public about these conspiracies by omitting any direct links to them and using clear, explicit headlines. Since headlines attract readers to the article and are the first information they see, they likely facilitate critical reading.[19] By avoiding catchphrases and restricting the title to the most crucial fact, the reader likely gains a detached understanding of the story while being informed. Through increased in-house training, journalists covering school shootings can learn the impact of accidental misinformation, likely leading them to be more selective in their sources and the amount of material they publish.


Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, use pop-up windows that encourage users to read an article before reposting, which likely pushes readers to think critically about its contents.[20] Through media literacy courses, schools also help students develop the critical thinking tools needed when surfing the Internet or watching the news, which likely increases their ability to detect hoaxes. Mandatory media literacy classes in schools would likely allow students to apply a critical perspective to their media or online information consumption. Fact-checking exercises will also likely make students more aware of the mechanics of disinformation.


Media companies should invest more money and resources in debunking articles or websites to increase public awareness of conspiracy theories’ lies. Social media platforms should continue to develop algorithms and software to detect and regulate conspiracy theory content, allowing for targeted blocking of specific content. Media editors should implement policies that emphasize the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics and enforce punishments for violations, reminding reporters to use reliable sources and validate any information they gather. Since the four main tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics are “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently,” and “be accountable for what you write,” this code likely helps minimize or avoid the damage of unprofessional news reporting.[21] During the initial coverage of a school shooting, editors should emphasize the quality and accuracy of information, which will likely enable reporters to spend more time verifying information.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends debunking existing conspiracy theories through access to open and reliable sources. This can be done on social media through the same flagging feature which was introduced to combat COVID-19 misinformation.[22] Flagging content related to school shooting conspiracy theories and directing users to verified and factual sources could likely decrease the number of individuals who believe school shootings are a hoax. If individuals are exposed to misinformation, access to reliable sources could likely provide a tool to combat false information. Posts containing misinformation regarding school shootings should be taken down from social media.


CTG recommends that schools introduce misinformation awareness by teaching fact-checking skills. Teaching how to differentiate between factual information and misinformation from a young age and how to find reliable sources could likely lead to a positive impact and a well-informed population in the future. As more individuals are educated regarding the importance of fact-checking, the risk of spreading misinformation in the future likely decreases. This type of education can also likely promote critical thinking in individuals. Professionals with expertise in misinformation could likely devise this program in cooperation with teachers. Special positions, which would oversee the misinformation education, could be introduced to ensure the accuracy and objectivity of the program’s delivery.


CTG’s Counter Threat Strategic Communications (CTSC) Team will continue to monitor the spread of conspiracy theories about school shootings online and the activity of those individuals who might become influential figures in spreading misinformation on this topic. The CTSC Team will also continue to evaluate existing countermeasures against conspiracy theories with a focus on social media, journalism, and educational institutions. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers will remain vigilant on potential school shooting threats made by individuals to monitor possible future attacks. CTG will continue to provide analysis and recommendations in the event of future school shootings’ conspiracy theories.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is a subdivision of the global consulting firm Paladin 7. CTG has a developed business acumen that proactively identifies and counteracts the threat of terrorism through intelligence and investigative products. Business development resources can now be accessed via the Counter Threat Center (CTC), emerging Fall 2021. The CTG produces W.A.T.C.H resources using daily threat intelligence, also designed to complement CTG specialty reports which utilize analytical and scenario-based planning. Innovation must accommodate political, financial, and cyber threats to maintain a level of business continuity, regardless of unplanned incidents that may take critical systems offline. To find out more about our products and services visit us at counterterrorismgroup.com.

 

[1]March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 in Washington, D.C” by Lorie Shaull licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Sandy Hook Anniversary: Conspiracy theories are worse and more mainstream than ever, Pennsylvania Capital Star, December 2021, https://www.penncapital-star.com/commentary/conspiracy-theories-have-more-personal-more-cruel-and-more-mainstream-heres-how-opinion/

[3] Social Media Usage: 2005-2015, Pew Research Center, October 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/

[4] The Sandy Hook Hoax, New York Magazine, September 2016, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/09/the-sandy-hook-hoax.html

[5] Sandy Hook: Alex Jones liable in defamation lawsuit, BBC, November 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59298320

[6] How conspiracy theories in the US became more personal, more cruel and more mainstream after the Sandy Hook shootings, The Conversation, December 2021, https://theconversation.com/how-conspiracy-theories-in-the-us-became-more-personal-more-cruel-and-more-mainstream-after-the-sandy-hook-shootings-172015

[7] Alex Jones found liable for Sandy Hook ‘hoax’ conspiracy theory, Al Jazeera, November 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/15/alex-jones-found-liable-for-sandy-hook-hoax-conspiracy-theory

[8] QAnon Conspiracy Theories & Countermeasures, The Counterterrorism Group, 2021, ISSN 2770-7547

[9] House Panel Subpoenas Roger Stone and Alex Jones in Capitol Riot Inquiry, The New York Times, November 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/22/us/politics/capitol-riot-subpoenas-roger-stone-alex-jones.html

[10] How the Florida school shooting conspiracies sprouted and spread, CNN, February 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/22/us/parkland-shooting-conspiracy-theories-trnd/index.html

[11] How Russian trolls exploited Parkland mass shooting on social media, Politifact, February 2018, https://www.politifact.com/article/2018/feb/22/how-russian-trolls-exploited-parkland-mass-shootin/

[12] Ibid

[13] Fellow’s Talk: Amanda Crawford, YouTube, March 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHxDoAykbQ8

[14] How conspiracy theories in the US became more personal, more cruel and more mainstream after the Sandy Hook shootings, The Conversation, December 2021, https://theconversation.com/how-conspiracy-theories-in-the-us-became-more-personal-more-cruel-and-more-mainstream-after-the-sandy-hook-shootings-172015

[15] Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, CNN, January 2013, https://transcripts.cnn.com/show/acd/date/2013-01-11/segment/01

[16] Rep. Greene Ousted from Education Committee After Lawmaker’s Embrace of Conspiracy Theories About School Shootings, The 74 Million, February 2021, https://www.the74million.org/article/rep-greene-ousted-from-education-committee-after-lawmakers-embrace-of-conspiracy-theories-about-school-shootings/

[17] Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theorist Loses to Father of 6-Year-Old Victim Over Hoax, The New York Times, June 2019, ​​https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/nyregion/sandy-hook-victim-court-ruling.html

[18] Alex Jones found liable for Sandy Hook ‘hoax’ conspiracy theory, Al Jazeera, November 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/15/alex-jones-found-liable-for-sandy-hook-hoax-conspiracy-theory

[19] “The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age,” Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, https://www.wiley.com/en-us/The+Ethical+Journalist%3A+Making+Responsible+Decisions+in+the+Digital+Age%2C+2nd+Edition-p-9781119031734

[20] Facebook is testing pop-up messages telling people to read a link before they share it, TechCrunch, May 2021, https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/10/facebook-pop-up-read-before-you-share/

[21] “Code of Ethics,” Society of Professional Journalists, https://www.spj.org/pdf/spj-code-of-ethics.pdf

[22] WHO Is Fighting False COVID Info On Social Media. How's That Going?, NPR, February 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/02/09/963973675/who-is-fighting-false-covid-info-on-social-media-hows-that-going


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