BOB GARFIELD: For a brief time this week, the top trending item on YouTube was a video claiming that Parkland student David Hogg was not actually a student but a crisis actor and the attack did not actually happen but was a hoax to bolster support for gun regulation. Theories about government-led false flag attacks go back a long time. Think, for example, of 9/11 truthers. But the idea that a national tragedy has been completely invented with actors pretending to be victims is a relatively new kind of cruelty.
This week, Jason Koebler of Motherboard set out to find the origins of the term “crisis actor” and found that it first emerged in 2012, just after the Sandy Hook massacre.
JASON KOEBLER: So this originated on some WordPress blogs, actually, and the original place I saw it was on a post that talked about a, quote, “triangulation between Sandy Hook, the Aurora shooting and Hurricane Sandy.” It also talked about time stream manipulation and, like, government holograms and things of this nature, so it’s really far-out there stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, obviously, this is totally looney tunes but was picked up by someone who was actually, at least nominally, credentialed that seemed to have some standing. Who was that?
JASON KOEBLER: Right, so his name is James Tracy. He’s a former communications professor at Florida Atlantic University, and he runs this blog called the MemoryHoleBlog. He ran these series of posts called Investigating Sandy Hook. At first, he was just talking about inconsistencies between the official narrative and things that people were saying in interviews but by post three or four he had fully picked up this idea that these people weren't real.
JAMES TRACY: For example, the interviews with bystanders, parents and children, seemed somewhat stilted.
JASON KOEBLER: He suggests that some of them were, quote, “itinerant crisis actors.” And that’s actually a phrase that comes from this theater acting troupe called VisionBox, this theater in Colorado that created this service because there were so many shootings in the United States for something called, quote, “crisis acting.” And it said that our trained actors will pretend to be taking part in a mall shooting so that first responders, paramedics, firefighters can practice because these sorts of services were needed in so many places.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, now, this category of acting, it's been around for a long time but it was this one company that branded their version of this “crisis actors.”
JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, so in the emergency response industry the term that they use is “role players,” someone who might pretend to have a heart attack or might pretend to have gotten shot. They often put them in makeup, they, you know, give them cue cards that list their symptoms so that paramedics can practice sort of their scripts and what they need to say in a real emergency. But yes, VisionBox was the first that I could find who branded this as “crisis acting.”
BOB GARFIELD: This Professor Tracy, who has since lost his job at Florida Atlantic, I can see how he would do a blog post on it and so forth. What’s the ecosystem that turns that into a widely-known term of art?
JASON KOEBLER: James Tracy makes these posts and they were later picked up by Infowars, which is Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory site.
ALEX JONES: Now again, in the last month and a half, I have not come out and said that this was clearly a staged event. Unfortunately, evidence is beginning to come out that points more and more in that direction.
JASON KOEBLER: It starts to gain steam on the right and then there is a reporter for the Florida Sun Sentinel who said, hey, maybe someone who's teaching the next generation shouldn’t be espousing these views. So he wrote a newspaper article about it and it soon became sort of like a national controversy. It was very quickly talked about on CNN with Anderson Cooper.
ANDERSON COOPER: I mean, I don’t even know how that would work, that the news media would somehow meet with government officials and then somehow hire crisis actors, who I've never even heard of…
JASON KOEBLER: And, you know, it was this big controversy for a little while and then it went away, but it's come back during the Bataclan shooting, the Orlando nightclub shooting and all these other mass tragedies that we’ve seen. And it’s actually been retrofitted into previous shootings where no one had actually suggested crisis actors were there in the first place. No one was suggesting, for instance, that crisis actors were at the Aurora theater shooting, which happened before Sandy Hook, but after this conspiracy theory gained steam people went back and said that that was fake, as well.
ALEX JONES: There was a girl, a crisis actor, in Aurora, Colorado. She showed up at the Boston Marathon bombing and she also showed up at Sandy Hook.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the thing about this guy, Tracy, no matter how unhinged his theory, is that he, he was a professor and this, in and of itself, seemed to give him credibility.
GUEST HOST PAUL JOSEPH WATSON: I don't actually believe In all these theories that are circulating about Sandy Hook but we’re going to talk to the professor before the bottom of the hour.
BOB GARFIELD: That was from a guy named Paul Joseph Watson who was subbing for Alex Jones on Infowars. Do you think if James Tracy had not been a professor but an actuary that we would be even having this conversation?
JASON KOEBLER: I don't think we would. I think that's a really good point. All of those original stories focus on the fact that, you know, a university professor was espousing these views. People were saying, this is so horrible, which then spreads the idea further, and eventually it became national news. This was circulating on the fringes even further out than Tracy and no one was talking about it then, so it very well may have died had he not posted about it.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of paying attention to something that is, in and of itself, probably not worthy of attention, Anderson Cooper created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
ANDERSON COOPER: Now, there are always conspiracy theorists lurking online who come up with some horrifically outrageous claims and normally we would not dignify these kind of claims with our airtime. These claims are obviously sickening to many in Newtown who have spent the…
BOB GARFIELD: It reminds me of the Mark Twain line that it takes two people to really hurt you to the quick, an enemy to slander you and a friend to get the news back to you. Are the media culpable for taking something marginal and turning it into a thing by the very act of reporting on it?
JASON KOEBLER: I think there's something to that and I think it's a very difficult question to know for sure but we do often think about, you know, did we do more harm than good in the 2016 election cycle by, you know, reporting on these conspiracy theories that, once repeated enough, they seem a little bit more plausible and take something that's very fringe and make it a little bit more mainstream?
There's also something to be said for tracing these conspiracy theories back to their original source because, in this instance, you know, this was mentioned alongside holograms and time stream manipulation and things that are just patently absurd. And I think, you know, actually looking at where it originates and demystifying it to a certain degree can be valuable.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason, thank you very much.
JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason Koebler is editor-in-chief of Motherboard. He recently wrote, “Where the Crisis Actor Conspiracy Theory Comes From.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, when young people take to the streets, how do the grownups usually respond? We take a look back and ahead.
ADAM FLETCHER: The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was literally driven by young people themselves, and so from that sentiment alone we had the most radical social change ever led by young people in the United States. And that’s your generation, Brooke. Thank you for that.