We all recognize the all-too-familiar narrative that unfolds in the aftermath of mass shootings: the “thoughts and prayers,” the insisting that it’s “too soon” to have a gun control debate.
Increasingly, that narrative also includes a host of conspiracy theories questioning the coverage of the crime, the victims, and sometimes casting doubt over whether the shooting even took place. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last week, conspiracy theorists began accusing survivors of being paid actors.
It’s disturbing, in the wake of a horrific and violent tragedy, to realize some people are spreading accusations and conspiracy theories, but it’s not a new trend. Michael Wood is psychologist at the University of Winchester who researches the psychology of conspiracies. He recently penned a blog post detailing the common patterns in conspiracy theories that emerge after a mass shooting, and I wanted to know more about what causes people to react in this way after a tragedy. Wood and I spoke on the phone, and he filled me in on some of the understanding he’s gleaned through his research.
Motherboard: Can you walk me through what some of the recurring themes are for conspiracy theories after a mass shooting?
Wood: There are a couple of things that you see after almost every mass shooting. There are almost always conspiracies that there was more than one shooter, or somebody else around. A lot of the time this comes from eyewitnesses who thought there was more than one person, but it turns into a conspiracy theory that the shooter didn’t act alone and there’s more to this than [authorities] are telling us.
Another one is crisis actors, which came after Sandy Hook from the idea that people weren’t expressing their grief in the “right” way. The idea was that they were paid actors and the allegations eventually claimed that the shooting itself never happened.
Who is behind it, in these theories? Who would want to fake a tragedy like this?
It’s usually part of a bigger conspiracy theory, which we call super conspiracies. They see it as part of a larger plot, so the same people who orchestrated Sandy Hook are the same people who are behind 9/11 and are the same people trying to poison everyone with vaccines, that sort of thing. Often this is all considered part of a plan to seize control of society and gun control usually plays a role if it’s in the United States.
What is it about dramatic, violent moments where a large number of people are killed that tends to spur these conspiracy theories?
It’s a major event, something that seems like it could have major consequences. One of the ideas out there for why these events attract conspiracy theories is that it’s psychologically unsatisfying when something big is caused by something small. So many people were killed in Las Vegas and the guy who did it was just one guy who bought two guns and we don’t even know why he did it. That’s psychologically unsatisfying, there’s a mismatch there.
So it’s one way our brain can go in its search for answers?
Yeah, it’s what we call sense-making. You have to make sense of things and conspiracy theories are really good at that because they provide a very clear answer, a very clear solution, very clear good guys, and very clear bad guys. It’s unambiguous.
What leads people to genuinely believe things that other people might find preposterous?
It varies. The most common conspiracy theories, such as the JFK assassination, a lot of people believe it. A majority of Americans believe JFK’s death involved a conspiracy. There are other conspiracies that almost no one believes. The theory has to fit with all the other things you believe in and your world view.
In your research what are you trying to learn about conspiracy thinking?
In the past I’ve done work on conspiracy worldviews: how common they think conspiracies are or the degree to which they think the world is a place run by conspiracies. It’s an ideological point of view that people have and that has an impact on a lot of things.
I’m also doing some research on how conspiracy theories spread on social media, and how we can measure belief through that.
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