During the Sandy Hook shooting, a 69 year-old retired psychologist named Gene Rosen opened his home to six terrified children immediately after the massacre. A month later, Salon magazine published an article on the kind neighbor and his continued harassment by conspiracy theorists. Members of a forum hosted on David Icke’s website (the former broadcaster who birthed the iconic “reptilian conspiracy theory”), had mixed reactions. “Some conspiracy maniacs genuinely believe that they can treat anyone as pawns on the basis that they ‘see the big picture,’” wrote one member. “He is an actor,” wrote another member. “And not a very good one at that.”
The idea of “crisis actors” rose to popularity within conspiracy theory circles after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting on December 14, 2012. The idea appears to have originated in a post by professor James Tracy on his website memoryholeblog.org, “a forum for news, criticism and commentary on sociopolitical issues and phenomena overlooked or misreported by mainstream media.” In “The Sandy Hook Massacre: Unanswered Questions and Missing Information”—written ten days after the Sandy Hook shooting—Tracy voices his suspicions about the official narrative, specifically focusing on the “bizarre performance” of medical examiner H. Wayne Carver.
Tracy compares Carver’s “apprehensive and uncertain” behavior at a December 15 press conference to his public reputation of being “extremely self-assured” with a “swaggering presence in Connecticut state administration.” His demeanor at the conference, and apparent uncertainty when speaking about certain details of the shooting (the shooting that, at this point, only happened one day ago) are evidence, for Tracy, that the H. Wayne Carver at the podium of the press conference is not the same H. Wayne Carver who made himself known as the Connecticut chief state medical examiner.
It is true that professional actors are sometimes hired to simulate disasters; their purpose is to help large organizations run through emergency response drills in preparation for possible catastrophic events. In conspiracy theory world, crisis actors are stans and stand-ins employed by the government to carry out affective labor during false flag operations. Websites claim that the Sandy Hook shooting, along with virtually every major tragedy involving human beings on American soil since 9/11, was a false flag drill that the government decided to take live.
Tracy does not claim to have discovered the existence of crisis actors, but his status as professor did give the theory some publicity as well as the appearance of legitimacy. He is careful not to say directly that he believes the shootings never took place. He does, however, derisively mention the “alleged father” of one of the victims, whose televised reactions he calls “unusual and apparently contrived.” As his theory gained traction he began giving interviews with outlets like Infowars in which he claims that “something” did occur at Sandy Hook: children were actually killed, he says. The post received over 1,000 comments in a little over a month.
In an interview, the political scientist Michael Barkun explained that conspiracy theorists try to make sense of a confusing world by “dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.” By imagining the evil forces as plants in the general public—the people with whom we’re supposed to sympathize—crisis actor believers erase the lines between good and evil that are usually clearly defined in conspiracy theories. There are no clear lines to separate the people who are ‘in on it’ and the people who aren’t.
An oft-repeated psychological explanation is that conspiracy theories arise as a reaction of disbelief in the face of a tragedy. It is (arguably) more reassuring to believe that a tragedy like Sandy Hook was staged by the government, instead of trying to make sense of the narrative in which somebody decided to walk into an elementary school and shoot 20 children. Then nobody would have died; there was no horrific act of violence. From this perspective, evil is not perpetrated by ordinary people, and the people the government wants us to think are evil are really harmless puppets. The crisis actor conspiracy theory exists in a worldview that is both paranoid and idealistic. Since crisis actor theorists maintain that these acts couldn’t have been carried out by people of their own accord, their view of the common man is much more positive than most people’s. To the believer, evil is primarily created by tangible, external forces. This combination of idealism and paranoia disrupts the real world in a way that other conspiracy theories don’t.
Unlike the typical 9/11 truther, who may hold that the whole event was a hoax but will keep their anger directed at the government, the crisis actor theorist directs their anger and disbelief at the victim. The government is acknowledged as the mastermind, but in the classic conspiracy trope of Us versus Them, each new tragedy brings forth new actors, and nobody is sure which of Them lives among Us.
While James Tracy did not outright dismiss the notion that an actual shooting occurred at Sandy Hook, that didn’t stop others from accusing its victims of being actors. The Facebook page “Crisis Actors and the News,” currently at 1,628 likes, posted a picture of a brown haired boy with blue eyes next to a picture of another brown haired boy with blue eyes, the implication being that these images both depict Dylan Hockley, killed in Sandy Hook. “Looks like Dylan is still alive,” the caption sneers. “The media won’t explain anomalies like the above pic.”
Most accusations made by crisis actor conspiracy theorists are based on the assumption that there is a correct way to react in a crisis. In searching for and collecting evidence of preferred or alternative narratives, the conspiracy theory subculture doesn’t greatly differ from fandom. Crisis actor theorists analyze their subjects down to the most minute details—the way they shift their eyes, the way they pause before answering certain questions—and use their findings to support whatever theories they have invented about their object of focus. Both communities view their inside knowledge as a form of status, and derisively scoff at the masses for not having the capacity to see what they do. “Its so obvious how this was staged. it’s so fucked up. everything about this interview is bizarre,” insists a member of Reddit’s conspiracy subreddit: “The shitty crisis actor, the men in black dudes making sure the script is followed, and the spineless reporter who let’s himself be dragged around like a little bitch.”
A sense of community is important to a conspiracy theorist. Without the community of believers, the theory loses its reality; only the most virtuosic conspiracy theorists can maintain their intricacies and weight on their own. New networks have brought about new ways for conspiracy theorists to connect to each other; after message boards fell out of popularity, many people moved on to Facebook, where there are hundreds of conspiracy theory groups with thousands of members. The move to Facebook makes learning about and spreading conspiracy theories even easier. Posts by conspiracy group members appear on your newsfeed instantly, sandwiched between mundane posts from your Facebook friends. Reading about conspiracy theories becomes integrated into your daily routine. It also ended the exclusivity of discussion forums, and now, nobody needs to search for a secluded place to discuss their conspiracy theory of choice. Instead, anyone with a Facebook account can stumble upon group discussions that were previously limited to the fringes.
But for all the solidarity a shared belief in the malevolent world can bring, the crisis actor subculture suffers the same kinds of internal drama found in every online community. Ed Chiarini of WellAware1.com is one of the more radical and controversial proponents of the crisis actor theory. On his website and YouTube account, dallasgoldbug, you will find hundreds of graphics and videos that illustrate how two different famous people who share vaguely similar facial features (one example from his website is Ted Bundy and Bryan Cranston) are actually played by a different third person, an actor. Sometimes the same actor might play multiple celebrities and hold a gig as a crisis actor on the side. Chiarini claims to be able to demonstrate this by using “ear biometrics.” Ear biometrics is a legitimate, scientifically recognized method of identification, but Chiarini’s ear biometrics system involves juxtaposing two different photographs of ears and declaring these as proof that both ears belong to the same person, even if the ears look completely different.
Ed’s wacky universe is too much for many crisis actor theorists, who are too much for many other conspiracy theorists. If nothing else, posting a link to WellAware1 in a conspiracy theory group demonstrates to other members that you’re fairly new to the game. Someone else, a more enlightened member, might respond with a link to a video about why Ed Chiarini is a fraud, and they might get a reply similar to one I saw recently: “Hey Man Thanks For Doing and Saying What Millions of Intelligent People all over Earth have been Yelling at the top of their lungs for quite some time—DallasGoldCrap is a DOUCHE Period.”
The Facebook group “HERE IT COMES !!!!!” has 7,824 members. In the sidebar, they describe themselves as “a positive place where free speech lives.” Everyone in the group is regarded as part of a family, they say, and there is no official membership hierarchy. One regular poster shares a video of a baby playing guitar. Another member shares a video claiming to demonstrate how the Boston Marathon bombing was a hoax staged by crisis actors. HERE IT COMES !!!!! is the kind of Facebook group that you can imagine an elderly relative somehow finding their way into.
Communities of crisis actor believers are necessarily insular, even more so than other conspiracy theory communities. Since their enemy appears to be the so-called ordinary person, the community is crucial in order to provide reassurance that not everybody is in on it. Richard Hofstadter, in his 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, asserts that the enemy “seems to be on many counts a projection of the self.” The conspiracy theorist, says Hofstadter, projects both the positive and negative aspects of the self. Crisis actor believers are a very literal manifestation of Hofstadter’s claim. For them, the enemy is the self, or at least the parts that are capable of committing evil.
Crisis actor conspiracy theorists are allowed to attribute every part of someone’s behavior to “acting,” which sends the conspiracy theory into a validation loop. A person acts too sad? This one’s a good actor, notes the conspiracy theorist sarcastically. A person doesn’t act sad enough? The cracks in the government’s plan are starting to show. On a plane of existence in which crisis actors are real, all these points are irrefutable.
The power dynamics essential to maintaining the crisis actor theory are what separate it from other conspiracy theories. The crisis actor theory focuses on the smallest details of the people with the least power. When the effects of their beliefs are felt in the real world, in behavior like harassing the alleged actors, it’s easily justified because the world of the crisis actor is one in which nobody has agency. They don’t see themselves as harming any real people. To them, the people they harass aren’t even people at all, only nefarious government stooges. This is also why they taunt nonbelievers using the same mocking tone as playground bullies: they have it all figured out, and you don’t.