On Valentine's Day, Nikolas Cruz exited an Uber in front of his former high school carrying a large duffle bag. Inside it was an AR-15 rifle. He shot and killed 17 people in the halls and classrooms of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Not long after the shooting, bloggers and conspiracy theorists baselessly accused survivors of the shooting of being paid actors who were working on behalf of the government and gun control groups to create a fictional event that would allow the government to take guns from the American people.
These crisis actor theories, once reserved to radical fringes of the internet, spread rapidly. Fake images, like this one of Parkland victims tearing up the U.S. constitution, went viral. Just a week after the Parkland shooting, a video accusing one of the survivors of being a paid actor was the #1 trending video on Youtube.
VICE met with these conspiracy theorists and victims of multiple mass shootings to see firsthand this absurd fight between fact and fiction.
David Hogg was among those who survived the Parkland shooting this February. The high schooler started speaking out against gun violence almost immediately following the event.
“When I first started doing interviews I wasn’t nervous or anything because I had done interviews with our own [high school] TV program and I had been doing that for the past four years basically,” Hogg told VICE. “I was just pissed off.”
Hogg told VICE that speaking out was his way of grieving his lost friends.
As Hogg and other Parkland students began calling for gun control, another narrative quickly gained traction online. The theory claimed that Hogg was a crisis actor. Among those propagating these theories was conspiratory theorist Alex Jones.
Jones’s videos prompted Hogg to respond on Twitter. The responses to Hogg’s post thread showcase the pervasiveness of social media conspiracy theories.
The Parkland students are the most recent subjects of the crisis actor conspiracy theory, which has its origins in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and has been posited in most mass shootings since then. Victims of mass shootings have been called paid actors, deep-state agents; grieving families have been asked to exhume the corpses of their loved ones and have been asked to relieve the worst days of their lives over and over.
Hogg and his mother Rebecca Boldrick both told VICE they have gotten death threats.
“I looked at my Facebook and it said I had like 172 comment and I normally have four,” Boldrick said. “Most of them were very hurtful, but there was one that talked about David’s birthday and [said] that he would be killed on his birthday.”
VICE also met with Tony Mead, the administrator of the “Sandy Hook Hoax” Facebook group—a page that would spread conspiracy theories claiming the victims involved in the 2012 shooting were still alive. The page was removed by Facebook on April 7 this year.
“Did people die?” Mead said. “ I don’t know. I don't think what happened here is a genuine calamity.”
Lenny Pozner, the father of one of the Sandy Hook victims and a frequent target of Mead’s group, compared this growing community of online hoaxers to people playing online video games.
“A portion of hoaxers have no problem targeting victims and they don't care if they are hurting people.” Pozner said in the video. “They feel that they are absolutely in the right and that these [the victims] are the villains in this big multiplayer online game.”
The conspiracy theorists have no sympathy for the victims of these mass shootings, and often baselessly throw personal attacks at them. Pozner says “he’s a poor victim who wants to protect the legacy of his child,” Mead said. “His child has no fucking legacy—nobody cares about this kid. His kid is a flash in the pan. Sandy Hook is years behind us now.”
Along with Mead, VICE also met with a Texas couple who call themselves “Side Thorn” and “Conspiracy Granny.” The duo claimed the mass shooting that left 26 dead in Sutherland Springs, Texas last November was a false flag operation spearheaded by the Department of Homeland Security.
“A scripted play, that’s what everyone one of them are,” the man who calls himself Side Thorn said.
“Right now the internet is a largely unregulated space,” Pozner said. “We have seen the empowerment of the mentally ill and mentally ill ideas have been spreading.”