Tim Carter

Imagine this; you are a high school student in the US. You go to school, just like every day, but all of a sudden you realize that this won’t be like normal. A troubled former student with a AR-15 semi-automatic rifle has entered the school building and started shooting. Before the police is able to stop him, he manages to kill 17 of your fellow students. Obviously, the media starts flooding in and you decide to act as a spokesperson for your classmates, since you’re good with words and have experience being on camera. You give multiple interviews, and as the anger over the lack of American gun control grows, you start leading a movement to stop these shootings once and for all. You and your classmates go to Washington DC to demand stricter gun laws. You give even more interviews and become a known face to the general public.

But as you become better known, you also start to get the attention from people who don’t like your message of gun restrictions. As the videos of you mount up on the internet, some people discover footage of you practicing lines before an interview or find footage of people in other crisis situations who look strikingly like you. Your intentions start getting questioned. Are you who you say you are? And once these people are convinced you’re not, they’ll ask who is organizing these lies and who you are working for? Are you paid by the FBI, Antifa or George Soros?

This happened to 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg. After his media appearances he was labelled a ‘crisis actor’. This means he is hired to spread a certain political message, using a tragedy like a school shooting. Some would even go as far as to claim that the tragedy did not even take place. The proposed motives for setting up such a fake shooting are diverse and outclass each other in absurdness. The alleged organizers range from the anti-gun lobby setting it all up to the Jewish-led world government, trying to subject everyone to authoritarian communism. This Vice documentary depicts the harassment the survivors have to withstand, and also covers Hogg’s experience.

These conspiracy theories are an increasingly more common phenomenon on primarily the right in the US. During the last presidential elections, the Democratic party was stoked with absurd theories that seriously harmed its candidate, Hillary Clinton. She was accused of murdering one of her staff members, Seth Rich, because he supposedly would be involved with the leaked DNC emails. Another conspiracy, Pizzagate, claimed that Hillary Clinton ran a child prostitution network from a pizza restaurant in Washington DC. Ridiculous as that may sound, a 28-year old man found in convincing enough to enter one of the accused restaurants with a gun to investigate for himself.

Popular talk-radio host Alex Jones, who is part of the extreme right media outlet Infowars, is one of the primary spreaders of these theories. He is the guy best known for his angry outbursts and the infamous quote ‘They put chemicals in the water that turn the fricking frogs gay’. Although his extreme and often ridiculous views are often deemed hilarious, the implications of the views he spreads are far from that. A video about David Hogg called ‘David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines in TV Interview’ reached number one on the YouTube trending page before being removed by YouTube because it violated harassment policies. As a result of Jones and others spreading these theories, Hogg and other vocal survivors of the shooting have been receiving threats. Pizzagate was also pushed by Jones’ channel, which reaffirms that spreading such theories can have serious consequences.

The movement Hogg and his schoolmates have started In favor of gun control is openly being associated with an organized attempt to abolish the Second Amendment and to ban guns (gun policies are the subject of a very heated debate in the US, as described by Maria in this article.) Often, the push for gun control is associated with authoritarianism, as shown in the image above from Alex Jones’ YouTube channel. Arguing that dictators always disarm their population, these school children are framed as enemies of American liberties. A very effective way of not only debunking the arguments of these pro-gun control students, but also deeming them very dangerous, framing them as a threat.

Often, the push for gun control is associated with Hungarian-American investor George Soros. He is a major donor to the democratic party, pro-immigration organizations and left-leaning thinktanks. His political affiliations and billions in wealth make him a favorite target of the extreme right, and his name seems to be what ties most of the large conspiracies together. This was also seen in the recent Hungarian elections, where Soros was painted as an enemy of the Hungarian people by prime minister Viktor Orban. Soros is also a favorite target of Alex Jones and the American far right. It probably not a coincidence that Soros is also Jewish, which gives the extreme right media the opportunity to use him as a dog-whistle for an anti-Semitic message. Although this message is rarely spoken out openly, a mere glimpse in the comment section of these videos is enough to see the message has landed (for instance, look for comments mentioning names or organisations like this: ((((George Soros)))), this means that a link between bad actions and Jews is made silently). In the world of conspiracy theories, the fear for another Hitler is perfectly compatible with anti-Semitism.

Screenshot from the Infowars website.
The claims made by these conspiracy theorists are absurd and they have to go ridiculous lengths to prove their points. The problem with these conspiracy theories hence isn’t that most people completely believe them. The theories however do create doubt on whether what you see and hear is true. The intentions of David Hogg might not be as evil as Infowars describes, but maybe there is more to them than meets the eye. Some in the Republican party’s establishment for instance have been convinced that these young people aren’t doing this because they want it themselves. Their skepticism ranges from the students being influenced by the Democratic establishment too much to Donald Trump Jr. liking tweets about Hogg being a crisis actor.

Meanwhile David Hogg seems to hold up pretty well against all the allegations made against him. He directly confronts those who spread fake news about him and is still very active in the gun-control movement. For this, he has become widely admired. Fortunately, there are a lot more Americans that support the message of these students than who believe the conspiracies.

But still, these developments are troubling. The effect conspiracies and fake news in general have is that they create noise which blocks out the truth further and further. As Dutch columnist Bas Heijne said: ‘If only you lie enough, even the truth is easily deemed a lie.’ As information is trusted less and less, it’s easier to discard news that doesn’t fit your world view. The conspiracies surrounding the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting once again show people are more and more willing to believe absurd claims when they fit their narrative. And it shows the effectiveness of fake news and how hard it is to stop it, certainly now that information can spread easily and freely through social media. Any disproving information is deemed to come from the indoctrinating side. It is therefore crucial that the mainstream media refrains from partiality and maintains or regains its position as an unbiased and trustworthy supplier of the truth. Only when the sources of information are known and checked, it becomes impossible to spread fake news, since you’ll be held accountable for them.