Everything you need to know about the absurd ‘crisis actor’ conspiracy theory

What it is, where it came from, and what Big Tech is trying to do about it.

Students participate in a protest against gun violence outside the White House. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Students participate in a protest against gun violence outside the White House. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Imagine being a teenager still reeling from the trauma of surviving a school shooting. Imagine being so infuriated and grief-stricken that you and your classmates decide to demand action on gun control. Then imagine being smeared by trolls on the internet as a liar and pawn in a Deep State conspiracy to deprive Americans of their inalienable right to an AR-15.

This is the reality that survivors of last week’s Parkland, Florida mass shooting are currently facing. As students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School speak out against politicians’ cowardice on gun control, they are increasingly the target of far-right conspiracy theories claiming that they are so-called “crisis actors,” paid by the left to vilify gun ownership. The claims that students like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez are crisis actors have spread rapidly across several social media platforms in the past few days alone. (On Wednesday morning, a video claiming Hogg was an actor was the top trending video on YouTube, with over 200,000 views.)

Conspiracy theories about “crisis actors” have been around for a long time. But in recent years these attacks have been used by the far-right to smear mass shooting survivors and throw debates about gun control off-balance, similar to the strategy used by the far-right during elections in America and Europe. What’s more, major social media platforms — despite their repeated promises to tackle fake news — continue to fall short and allow these theories to propagate.

A history of the crisis actor conspiracy theory 

The crisis actor conspiracy theory is rooted in the claim that mass shooting victims are actually paid actors, brought in by liberal Deep State backers like George Soros, to make mass shootings appear worse than they actually are — or, in the case of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, completely fabricated. These actors are trained on pro-gun control talking points which, ultimately, will help subvert “traditional American values” and usher in some sort of Deep State takeover — or so the theory goes.

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This cruel trolling tactic has been around for more than a decade but started gaining significant traction in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012. Fringe conspiracy theorists, including Infowars’ Alex Jones, combed through media coverage to find supposedly contradictory pieces of information which they claimed exposed that the shooting was staged. Parents of the children who died that day have since been targeted by conspiracy theorists who insist the parents are crisis actors lying about the tragedy.

Since Sandy Hook, the crisis actor conspiracy theory has emerged, like clockwork, after nearly every mass shooting. When 58 people were killed in an October mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, members of the far-right started pushing simultaneous conspiracies that the killer was a left-leaning Democrat, and that the shooting had also been exaggerated by crisis actors. After 26 people were killed in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church in November, rumors swirled online that the attack was a “false flag” operation.

There has never been a shred of evidence to support these claims, and the rumors quickly lose traction once the media loses interest in the latest mass shooting. Despite this, the crisis actor theory emerges over and over again.

How the crisis actor theory is weaponized by the far-right 

From afar, these repeated cries of “crisis actor” might seem like an absurd fringe conspiracy, but they actually serve a wider purpose in enabling the far-right to sow disinformation and plant seeds of doubt that are later picked up by more mainstream right-wing news outlets.

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What’s especially worrying is that it’s proven to be an incredibly effective technique, as a November study by researchers at the the University of Alabama, Cyprus University of Technology, University College London, and Telefonica Research discovered. The researchers found that there was a direct path from rumors that originated on 4chan, The_Donald subreddit, and other right-wing echo chambers to mainstream news and social media sites, and concluded that “‘fringe’ communities often succeed in spreading alternative news to mainstream social networks and the greater Web.”

An example of this percolation could be seen on Fox News’ The Five Tuesday, when Greg Gutfeld suggested students protesting in the wake of the Parkland tragedy had been “co-opted.” It was a toned-down version of the Gateway Pundit’s smear, which suggested that student David Hogg was a FBI puppet and that students were being used as “marionettes by the far left and deep state.”

Sowing disinformation in this way allows the far-right to distort and disrupt the tragic narrative that occurs after every mass shooting, where the perpetrator, often a young man, legally acquires a high-powered weapon and murders people at will in a school, office, or another public venue. By focusing on crisis actors and conspiracy theories, the far-right confuses and obscures the calls for sensible gun violence prevention measures.

These disinformation techniques are also similar to those used by the far-right in certain political campaigns: An October study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue noted how the far-right had organized across country borders and were using social media and “staging sophisticated operations in the style of military psychological operations… to disrupt the democratic process in Europe.”

What is Big Tech doing about it?

When contacted by ThinkProgress, both Facebook and YouTube said Wednesday that they had taken steps to remove the crisis actor content from their platforms. “Hoax images that attack the victims of last week’s tragedy in Florida are abhorrent,” Mary deBree, Facebook’s head of content policy, said in a statement. “We are removing this content from Facebook.”

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YouTube said the viral video purporting to show David Hogg as a crisis actor “should never have appeared in Trending.”

“Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it,” a spokesperson for Google said. “As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward.” In a later statement, YouTube added that it updated its harassment policy last year to include the victims of hoax videos, “but in some circumstances those changes are not working quickly enough.”

But that’s the problem. Because YouTube’s Trending Tab is curated by an algorithm, owed to the sheer number of trending topics all over the world, humans aren’t involved in tracking which videos are popular, and are not able to immediately catch and flag problematic content.

Google’s search bar has the same issue. As of Wednesday morning, Google’s top suggested search when you type in “crisis actor” is “crisis actor parkland”. When you type in the name of student Emma Gonzalez, “Emma Gonzalez Actress” is the third suggested search. (There is an IMDB page for Emma Gonzalez, but she looks nothing like the student she’s accused of being, and was writing TV shows the same time the student Emma was in her early teens. Despite this, rumors are still circulating on 4chan that they’re the same people.)

Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have instituted a slew of changes in the last year after it became clear just how vulnerable their platforms are to manipulation and abuse. Facebook tightened rules on advertising content, rolled out third-party fact checkers, and said it’s changing its newsfeed to prioritize posts from friends and family.

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However, the rapid spread of crisis actor conspiracy theories shows how tech companies are effectively playing whack-a-mole with fake news. Whenever an algorithm gets tweaked, or an extra content policy is created, disinformation finds a new way back into your newsfeed. This points to the scope of the problem that tech companies face. But despite repeated instances showing how they spread misinformation after mass shootings, their only answer for now seems to be “change the algorithm” for trending topics on their platforms.