There are two kinds of conspiracy theories: The ones about the Illuminati and about mysterious "chemtrails," which lurk forever in the online twilight zone, favored by a hard core of fringe believers; and the ones that, like the equally ludicrous speculation about Barack Obama's nativity, break into the nation's political conversation.
The repugnant and absurd theories about the massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut, last month seem like an obvious candidate for the first category, simply too insane to gain any sort of wide acceptance. But 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 long-standing fear among gun owners, in particular.
The leading version of the "Sandy Hook Hoax" theory, such as it is, holds that the incident was staged by the White House as a prelude to disarming America. Many of its claims are rooted in contradictory and confusing media statements that came out of the chaos of the first hours of the shooting, and which are virtually always present in such chaotic moments. (Similar confused media reporting served as the basis of the 9/11 Truth movement.)
The theory is ludicrous, but there is hard evidence that it has begun to go viral. The leading, anonymous, 30-minute video created by YouTube user ThinkOutsideTheTV had been viewed 10.6 million times by Friday morning. The search engine Topsy, which measures Twitter conversation, shows discussion of the video rising fast this week starting on Sunday and then, as those conversations peak and drop, discussion of a "Sandy Hook hoax" largely continuing to rise, with only a slight dip. And Twitter is just a tiny slice of a broader social space that includes Facebook, YouTube, and, in particular, email forwards, which typically are the key communication channels for conspiracy theories.
"It's by far the hottest topic of the moment," said David Mikkelson, the cofounder of the popular fact-checking website Snopes.com, which offers a detailed and extensive debunking of the theory's various planks.
The term "Sandy Hook conspiracy" was also a "hot search" on Google this week.
And it has begun to pop up around the edges of broader American culture. On Jan. 16, Washington Nationals center fielder Denard Span tweeted, "I was watching some controversial stuff on YouTube about the sandy hooks thing today! It really makes u think and wonder." His followers quickly responded with criticism: "c'mon man be smarter than that..." and "NO, man. Don't go into the conspiracies. They're garbage, cooked up by truly sick people."
Span apologized in a series of subsequent tweets, concluding with: "For the record if I truly offended anybody, I AM TRULY SORRY! I'm not in the business of hurting people. I'm ok twitter to have a good time."
In Cincinnati, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate, Ben Swann, has publicly doubted that there was just one shooter in Newtown (another core claim of conspiracists), and asked officials to release surveillance footage of the attacks.
After intense criticism, Swann blamed "the smear machine."
And Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has launched an internal investigation of a communications professor, James Tracy, who has claimed the Obama Administration may have hired "crisis actors" who would grieve on camera and shape public opinion in favor of gun control.
"There is a growing awareness that the media coverage of the massacre of 26 children and adults was intended primarily for public consumption to further larger political ends," Tracy wrote on his blog. (The class he teaches is called "Culture of Conspiracy.")
The evidence on which these budding theories are based is, even by the standards of fringe conspiracy theory, remarkably thin, and demand massive collusion between hundreds of private citizens, the federal government, local authorities, and the news media.
The theorists claim some of the parents and witnesses are paid actors who, because they don't shed tears on camera, are pretending their children died. The "Sandy Hook Shooting - Fully Exposed" video shows a photo of children hugging Obama during a visit to Newtown. The theorists claim one of the little girls is Emilie Parker, who was killed in the shooting. The little girl, who shares many of Emilie's features, is her sister.
Other claims point to contradictory media statements during the coverage immediately after the event. One of those, which was cleared up soon after, was that shooter Adam Lanza couldn't have killed students with a semi-automatic rifle because it was found in his car by police officers. That weapon was in fact, police say, a shotgun they pulled out of his trunk.
Another component of the theory is that there were multiple shooters. But a man initially handcuffed in the nearby woods by police (and implicated by theorists) was a father trying to visit his son's school when he heard shots ring out. He was interviewed and released, but this detail dropped from news coverage when Lanza was identified.
The media is often reluctant to engage such theories directly. The political press spent much of 2007 and 2008 ignoring grassroots conservative beliefs that President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and that his wife had thrown around the epithet "whitey." But both of those eventually became so widespread, embraced by local elected officials and other public figures, that they were impossible to ignore; their course served as a template for Obama's being forced to display, from the White House podium, his birth certificate.
Now the media is on the cusp of having to struggle with whether or not to cover and debunk another insane theory, at the cost of — critics say — dignifying it. But at some point they may not have a choice: At least one Newtown resident told Salon that he's begun to receive harassment accusing him of cooperating with a government cover-up.
So far, most of the mainstream press has chosen to ignore the theory, though some in the conservative media have confronted it head-on. Conservative media figure Glenn Beck on Wednesday took a call from the father of a Sandy Hook student who wanted to dispel conspiracy rumors. Having to address the theories "makes me want to throw up all over again," he said, and added later, "It happened. It really happened."
Beck told the father he planned to do another show to "set the record straight" on conspiracy theories.