When I asked Lenny Pozner whether comments from the “trolls and haters” were still rolling in, here is what he said: “Of course. Just search my name on Twitter or Facebook.”
When I did so, about a week after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL, right around the time a video claiming the victims were paid to perform their grief had catapulted into YouTube’s top results, here is what I saw: a tweet claiming that Pozner, whose son was killed by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook five years ago, had committed a felony by using a “fake” name on a gun application. A half-dozen screeds about the “social engineering of the masses” tagged with Pozner’s name. A photograph of smiling teenagers with school pictures of some of Sandy Hook’s 20 young victims hastily overlaid.
Pozner is perhaps best known known as the man who voraciously consumed Alex Jones’ talk radio conspiracy theories, until he became the subject of Jones’ paranoid chatter himself. The most vocal anti-hoaxer among the parents who became the targets of online—and physical—harassment after Sandy Hook, Pozner has copyrighted photographs of his family, released his son’s report cards, launched campaigns and legal threats against both the people who’ve harassed him and the platforms who enable them. And still, after moving several times and starting a non-profit dedicated to “stopping the continual and intentional torment of victims,” he is targeted as a “crisis actor” by the obsessive hoax-mongers of the internet.
The crisis actor theory emerges “all the time,” with anyone “who is immediately visible” in the aftermath of a tragedy, he says. He followed claims of “false flag” deep state operations after the attempt on Gabby Gifford’s life and the murders at the movie theater in Aurora, saw “crisis actor” theories ricochet across internet forums after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub and retroactively applied to other supposed hoaxes. Having catalogued abuse and consulted with the victims of events like these, he has a particularly granular analysis, and there is an FAQ on his website with a detailed timeline of what to expect from hoaxers when you have been involved in a mass shooting.
“You’re probably reading this because the unthinkable happened,” it begins. “Someone you know and love has died in a mass shooting, and shortly thereafter a group of often anonymous internet personalities have begun to harass and defame you as a ‘crisis actor’ in their delusional cult conspiracy theories. Maybe they started by sending you an email inquiring about ‘the truth.’”
“People are generally thrown into this, and they’re not prepared for it,” Pozner tells me on the phone. And once the Stoneman Douglas teenagers survived a lone ex-student opening fire on their classmates with an AR-15, the ones who leveraged the mics thrown into their faces to advocate for stricter gun control were harassed on social media from nearly the moment they appeared on TV. Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, two of the most visible activists, have been the subjects of lengthy Facebook posts shared thousands of times calling them “Globalist Deep State Crisis Actors” and “so-called students.” One meme shared first on Instagram photoshops them into a “High School Musical” poster renamed “High School Shooting.” On message boards and private forums, conspiracy theorists have dug up mug shots they take as proof that Hogg is in fact an actor in his thirties.
The “crisis actor” theory—which in just a few years has been adopted by mainstream figures looking to disparage whatever political action such an awful and senseless event would demand in a more reasonable country—has instantaneously bled out of anonymous forums into more mainline outlets. In the days after Parkland, Tucker Carlson addressed the “huge controversy online” on his Fox News show, citing the “allegation” that the activist students were “in some way in contact with organized anti-gun groups.”
A Pennsylvania state representative wrote a Facebook post recently referring to the Parkland teenagers as quote-unquote “students.” And an aide to a Florida lawmaker told a journalist the students were “actors”—the aide was fired, but that didn’t stop online conspiracy theorists from sending David Hogg and his family death threats. Already the family has been forced to reveal personal details about why Hogg’s father left the FBI, backed into the disclosure by hoaxers who insist the bureau dispatched him as part of a state-sponsored operation.
In the years since Sandy Hook, the idea that victims of mass tragedies are paid actors—a belief that in practice hoists abuse on survivors, rather than the Deep State actors ostensibly responsible for pulling the strings—has become such a popular explanation for acts of unimaginable violence it has been retrofitted, since the 2010s, to explain earlier events from 9/11 to the Oklahoma City bombing to the Waco Siege. After the shooting in Sandy Hook, conspiracy theorists tried to pin the same “crisis actor” to several contemporary acts of mass violence, including Aurora and the Boston Marathon bombing.
With the access to a person’s intimate history the internet can facilitate, such theories end up directly at the feet of survivors struggling to make sense of a tragedy under an already-glaring media spotlight—and muddily end up in prime time slots, where they mix with partisan analysis.
“They’ve become part of the narrative,” Pozner says. “And that cannot be undone.”
As recently as late December, Roy Moore claimed that Democrats bussed black voters in from other states to vote against him, a racist negation of an entire demographic’s fundamental political will. But similar paid protester or “agitator” tropes have been deployed for decades to minimize political action. It’s a reliable ways to remove a person’s political agency, to claim they’re an unfeeling pawn in someone else’s game.
As chronicled in the extensive news clippings collected by Heather Cox Richardson in her Death of Reconstruction, during Emancipation black Americans looking for protections under the 1875 Civil Rights Act were accused of being paid by outside agitators, or used as a political tool by the North to tear the country apart. In 1957, rumors that the Little Rock Nine had been paid to go to to an integrated school were so common—or at least considered so credible to journalists—that the NAACP was forced to issue a statement to the New York Times refuting the “pure propaganda” claiming students had been imported by the North.
The same newspaper, over the weekend, pointed to some of these earlier propaganda campaigns, but missed most of what’s happened in the interim. The idea that there are hordes of disingenuous political foot-soldiers has appeared throughout history, in the form of white students signing up black Southerners to vote, or anti-war activists, or Soros-funded antifa thugs, all the way up to the counter-protesters demonstrating against white nationalists for $25 an hour in Charlottesville.
But the bleed between such straightforward partisan smearing and broader conspiracy thinking is relatively new, and the “crisis actor” trope really only spread widely after Sandy Hook. If hoaxers were concerned with “false flag” operations before, the suspicion was more likely to be targeted at the shadow state—or the military, or George Bush himself—than the real humans living through horror. If there was an outside agitator during Columbine, it was Marilyn Manson or the “trench coat mafia,” not the kids and parents who lived through the shooting and the grueling months of media attention that followed.
Recently, Jason Koebler over at Vice found what he believes is the origin of the “crisis actor” meme: a press release calling for actors to help with a mall shooting simulation a few weeks before Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook. (Such simulations do exist, typically to train first-responders how to act in an actual emergency, and they rarely involve open calls for “crisis actors.”) The press release circulated through Sandy Hook hoaxer blogs. James Tracy, the same man who sent Pozner the letter and was later fired from his position, specifically cited it as a potential call for people to play parents and bystanders.
Five years later, the idea that survivors are paid actors is being deployed by people in state politics to erase both the grief of the people at Parkland and whatever potential for change their moral authority might demand. In part it’s a problem with social media platforms, which here and elsewhere haven’t found the means (or more likely the will) to curb abuse. In part it’s that such violence is too difficult for some people to square with their understanding of the world, and they’d rather send death threats to teenagers than admit we’re letting so many American children die.
Brian Keeley, a professor of philosophy at Pitzer College, has been writing about conspiracy theories since the ‘90s. He believes conspiratorial thinking is an attempt to impose control on the world, an uncompromising belief system close to a religion: “People are treating the world as more rational than it is,” he says.
Keeley suggested to me that a defining feature of the crisis actor theory is exactly what makes these tragedies so hard to comprehend: that they’re geographically isolated and random, with few people around to watch them unfold. He wonders if it’s “wishful thinking, or some denial of some horrible reality” that keeps the theorists demanding “the truth.” But he also considers the crisis actor conspiracy to show how we’re reckoning with grief and visibility in a culture where few of us experience it directly, yet almost all of us see it on screen: “Folks seem to think that the [Parkland] students are not expressing grief in credible ways,” he says. “As a culture, Americans have much less experience with feeling and witnessing grief than we used to.”
Pozner is a little starker in his analysis, and given what happened to him he has reason to be less concerned with how we as a society are making sense of collective grief. He thinks the harassment of the Parkland survivors is only beginning, and he doesn’t think the conspiracy-mongering will stop, especially without stricter oversight. “It’s like a reality show to them,” he says.
With David Hogg, as with others, Keeley notes, there’s an idea that the people who witness extraordinary violence are not “acting appropriately.” As if any of us faraway news consumers know what the appropriate emotional response of the people affected by the 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook should be.