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Why We Can’t Ignore the Sandy Hook Truthers

Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists aren't going to go away if we pretend they don't exist.

We’ve been writing a lot about  the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting — some say too much. “Why you’re giving these Sandy Hook truther media whores the time of day. Ignore them and they go away [sic],” one reader emailed.

Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case. The genie is already out of the bottle and this myth will likely only heat up as the debate over gun control does. “It’s by far the hottest topic of the moment,” David Mikkelson, the co-founder of the myth-debunking website  told BuzzFeed. As the site’s Ben Smith and CJ Lotz wrote today, “Some of the factors that can bring theories in from the fringe appear to be driving its unexpected surge this month: A connection to America’s intensely polarized political culture in general, and a message that appeals to a longstanding fear among gun owners, in particular.”

“This has gone super viral. It even surprised me how crazy insane the interest in this stuff is,” Paul Joseph Watson, a guest host for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ radio show, said today.

And thanks to the Internet, the media can no longer suffocate a smoldering conspiracy theory by ignoring it. ”The biggest problem for theorists was always getting their message out,” Robert Goldberg, a University of Utah historian who studies conspiracy theories, told Salon. “The Internet has completely changed that. Often, they don’t even bother trying to get their theories in the mainstream media anymore.” So even if the the few media outlets that have covered the theories give them a bit more exposure, it’s unlikely conspiracists would have a problem reaching their audience on their own anyway.

Indeed, they’ve already been tremendously successful. The numbers alone are staggering.

The most popular video on YouTube, “ The Sandy Hook Shooting – Fully Exposed,” produced by ThinkOutsideTheTV, already has nearly 11 million views. There are at least 40 other Sandy Hook conspiracy theory videos on YouTube with over 100,000 views. Alex Jones’ conspiracy websites, which  get 11 million visitors a month, are publishing new stories about the Newtown massacre every day.

Mentions of “Sandy Hook hoax” have  exploded on Twitter in the past week. This graph shows the spike in  Google searches for “Sandy Hook hoax,” which mostly come from conservative states like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Kentucky:

Then there’s the increasing flirtation with the hoax theory among presumably credible people. On top of Florida Atlantic University professor  James Tracy, and  popular Ohio TV anchor Ben Swann, there’s Denard Span, a centerfielder for the Washington Nationals. He tweeted this week, “I was watching some controversial stuff on YouTube about the sandy hooks thing today!  It really makes u think and wonder.” (He later apologized and walked back his comments.)

One reason for the explosive growth of the movement is that it  builds on existing conspiracy theories, especially classic “ black helicopters” anti-government paranoia and theories surrounding 9/11. Not only do Sandy Hook truthers share an epistemological foundation with existing theorists, but the believers are often the very same people. On online message boards dedicated to swapping conspiracy theories, many of the commentators who argue that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation actually see it as merely the latest in a long line of other government operations aimed at disarming Americans, such as the shooting in Aurora, Colo., and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Meanwhile, 9/11 truthers were quick to jump on the Sandy Hook bandwagon. One popular YouTube video purportedly offering “ absolute proof” that the shooting was a hoax (338,000 views and counting) was produced by  Operation Terror, a group that produced a series of 9/11 truther videos. Let’s Roll, an Internet forum created for discussing 9/11 theories, is rife with  Sandy Hook threads.

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