"Crisis actors" conspiracy theory spreads across the radical right

As with so many mass shootings before, the fringe right is racing once again to generate some theory — any theory — to cast doubt on the circumstances of last week’s Parkland, Florida, shooting.

After the events at Sandy Hook, a shooting that took the lives of 20 small children and six school staff members, Alex Jones declared that the massacre was “completely false.” Like-minded conspiracy theorists terrorized grieving parents, accusing them of being paid performers, or “crisis actors.” After Parkland, they’re attacking student survivors with the same accusation.

Shortly after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students began speaking publicly about their ordeal and sharing their opinions about what the government ought to do, the right-wing blogosphere responded with posts questioning their credibility, their motives and their right to speak about their own experiences.

Lucian Wintrich, of the conspiracy-courting blog “The Gateway Pundit,” got the ball rolling on Monday with a post claiming he’d “exposed” 17-year-old shooting survivor David Hogg as a trained operative reciting lines on behalf of the FBI. His melodramatic headline lost some of its impact due to an unfortunate typo that identified Hogg as a “surviver [sic].”

Wintrich’s hypothesis relied on two tenuous assumptions: first, 17-year-olds are never articulate, and second, Hogg cannot be trusted because his father was in the FBI. His accusations, though flimsy, were popular with Wintrich’s alt-lite political circle. The fake news campaign picked up steam when a YouTube account trafficking in conspiracies about UFOs and chem-trails produced videos alleging Hogg was an actor because he’d appeared in a CBS Los Angeles news segment in 2017.

The “crisis actor” narrative gained traction in some of the most extreme corners of the online radical right. Mike Peinovich’s viciously racist blog, “The Right Stuff,” features a spirited discussion on the conspiracy in its 504um, complete with the usual speculation about imagined Jewish influence and the distasteful slurs to match. On Wednesday, The Daily Stormer piled on with a blog post from founder Andrew Anglin, called, “So are These Florida Gun Control Kids Crisis Actors or What?”

Anglin stopped short of insisting the shooting was entirely fabricated, counseling his audience to please, “not go crazy with the conspiracy stuff.” But he didn’t rule it out. “The Jews are extremely desperate right now, and basically willing to do whatever,” he wrote.

Other extremist groups propagated the conspiracy on social media. Ryan Ramsey, of the American Guard, shared a “crisis actor” meme on Instagram. The American Guard has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of the organization’s association with violent skinheads. A Facebook page for the III% Security Force, an antigovernment militia, featured multiple articles from Infowars attacking Hogg.

Not everyone is on board. Mike Cernovich, one of the most accomplished fake news ambassadors on the right, declined to fan the flames of this particular conspiracy. Known for his enthusiastic dissemination of falsehoods, like #Pizzagate, and his fondness for accusing his political enemies of pedophilia, Cernovich said of the current controversy, "Right now we are in a fight for free speech — a fight for our lives. This does not help any of us. This crisis actor bullshit is completely discrediting all the hard work that I do...to get real journalism, to get stories out there."

But even right-wing pundits considered more mainstream, like former Fox News star Bill O’Reilly and longtime conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, have entertained the conspiracy. CNN political commentator and former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston suggested on the air that there were behind-the-scenes forces directing the students, saying, “Do we really think — and I say this sincerely — do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?”

National Rifle Association board member and musician Ted Nugent, shared an article on social media alleging the students were “rehearsing scripted lines” and “coached” on what to say. He “liked” a comment on Facebook that said Hogg was a 26-year-old paid crisis actor. Sharing these conspiracies has become a bad habit of Nugent’s — he also spread bogus claims about the Sandy Hook shooting and told Alex Jones last October that the Las Vegas shooting was “scripted by deep state Democrats.”

The nation is stuck in the ugliest possible incarnation of a Groundhog Day scenario: a gunman kills en masse in a school, university, church or movie theater; there’s an outpouring of condolences and calls for change; inevitably, attempts at change fall apart, and interest wanes until the next tragedy. These conspiracies have become another feature of that déjà vu. Survivors and the bereaved are subjected to doubt, disdain and defamation from those for whom their testimony is politically or ideologically inconvenient. As this latest lie makes its way across the web, the gullible should beware the bad-faith opportunists.

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