Aware of the mocking (and sometimes shocked) coverage of “Holmies,” the James Holmes fandom that emerged in the wake of the shooting last year, #FreeJahar regulars are self-conscious about the fangirl label. (With the exception of Claire, every blogger I contacted refused to answer questions, or didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Claire doesn’t even think #FreeJahar is a fandom. “TV/Music fandoms are more into how a person looks or how well they sing/act,” she explains, while #FreeJahar “is something more serious and more in-depth than that. It also helps solves ‘political’ acts where as a fandom does nothing like that.” Rather than structure themselves around a communal identity, like “Holmies” or “Columbiners,” #FreeJahar adherents convoke around a hashtag—like #Kony2012. In other words: it’s not a fandom, it’s a movement.
And as a movement, it needs convictions. Where in the case of the shooting in Aurora, the conspiracy theorists (and there were many) and the Holmies largely kept to their own corners of the web, #FreeJahar is a marriage of the two. It may draw heavily on fandom culture, but it relies just as much on the skepticism and paranoia of sites like Prison Planet and Godlike Productions, not to mention their rhetorical techniques—the annotated images, the dramatically narrated YouTube videos, the willingness to embrace even mutually contradictory pieces of evidence.
The only thing surprising about the collision of the worlds of conspiracy and fandom is that it’s taken this long to happen. They’re both mostly populated with teenagers and 20somethings. Young people like Claire (and like Tamerlan Tsarnaev) drive an enormous online conspiracy economy; they’re the ones speculating about which rap stars are Illuminati members on message boards and creating and sharing dramatic YouTube videos that end up with 13 million views. Claire told me the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings were her entry into the world of conspiracies: “I thought it was a big tragedy until I watched a video of the conspiracy being explained and ever since I have strong feelings about it being staged.”