It happens in the wake of almost any tragedy serious enough to make the national news: Conspiracy theories circulate claiming that it didn’t really happen, or that it was staged to advance a political agenda, or that the witnesses and family members seen sobbing on television are actually actors. In the wake of the mass killing at a Florida high school last week, it happened again — this time, spread by an aide to a state legislator who emailed a Tampa Bay Times reporter to pass along a tip that “[b]oth kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.”
The “kids” referred to by Benjamin A. Kelly, a district secretary for Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison, were two survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting who were interviewed on CNN. Kelly was promulgating a notion as cruel as it is implausible: The people on television you see grieving? Actors paid to show up and look sad.
Related: What are false flags?
Kelly was fired hours later, while apologies and condemnations flew, but he’s far from the only one propagating the idea that the students demanding new gun-control regulations aren’t real. He directed the Tampa Bay Times to a video uploaded to YouTube showing school senior David Hogg in a local news report from California that supposedly proved that he’s a paid actor. The person in the video is Hogg, but the story is from last summer when Hogg was visiting friends — Hogg told CNN his family moved to Florida from California — but that hasn’t stopped the report from becoming the top trending video on all of YouTube.
“I am not a crisis actor,” said Hogg.” I’m somebody that had to witness this and live through this and I continue to have to do that. The fact that some of the students at Stoneman Douglas high school … are showing more maturity and political action than many of our elected officials is a testament to how disgusting and broken our political system is right now in America. But we’re trying to fix that.”
Kelly was joined by other members of the GOP. Former congressman and CNN contributor Jack Kingston questioned the legitimacy of the students’ efforts and suggested they might be either paid by billionaire Democratic donor George Soros or members of the protest group antifa. Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe issued a statement that used scare quotes around “students,” apparently as a way to call their authenticity into question. Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and entertainer Ted Nugent, who visited President Trump in the White House last year and is a National Rifle Association board member, have also signaled their suspicions that something is amiss with the student activists.
The group questioning the legitimacy of the school shooting survivors is not the first in the Republican mainstream to embrace conspiracy theories. Trump and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., have both done interviews with “Infowars,” the most popular conspiracy site on the internet. “Infowars” host Alex Jones helped invent and spread the story that the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was staged to advance a gun-control agenda in which “crisis actors” took the roles of grieving parents and the dead children never existed.
“Yeah, so, Sandy Hook is a synthetic completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” said Jones during a 2015 show. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors. I mean they even ended up using photos of kids killed in mass shootings here in a fake mass shooting in Turkey — so yeah, or Pakistan. The sky is now the limit.”
But it wasn’t just the fringe that believed something was amiss in Newtown. A 2013 Farleigh Dickinson University poll found that 25 percent of respondents believed that some people were hiding the truth about the Sandy Hook shooting to advance a political agenda.
The idea of crisis actors and paid agitators also isn’t new. In 1957, when nine black students were integrated into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., segregationists pushed the theory that the students were being paid or perhaps “imported” from the North. In 1964, Alabama Gov. George Wallace said that there weren’t any problems in the South that weren’t caused by “outside agitators.”
More recently, officials in Missouri again used the term, blaming “outside agitators” for protests in Ferguson, Mo.., following Michael Brown’s death. After last October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, survivors were harassed with death threats, after accusations that they were actors and the deaths of 58 people were a hoax circulated on social media.
Many of the Stoneman Douglas students are technically actors — many of them know each other from the school’s theater program — but they are sincere in calling for new gun legislation. Their agenda includes meetings in Tallahassee, Fla., Wednesday and a planned march in Washington, D.C., next month.
“We are KIDS — not actors,” wrote Jaclyn Corin, president of the school’s junior class, on Twitter. “We are KIDS that have grown up in Parkland all of our lives. We are KIDS who feared for our lives while someone shot up our school. We are KIDS working to prevent this from happening again. WE ARE KIDS.
“It’s actually funny to us,” said Emma Gonzalez, one of the students whose legitimacy was questioned by Kelly, in an interview with BuzzFeed. “Last night, we kept showing the pictures of each other of the actors that we’re supposed to be and could not stop laughing — it was nice, we hadn’t had such a good laugh in what feels like years. It just shows how weak the other side’s argument is, like they have to attack the messengers since the message is airtight. Also I’m thankful there are people out there finding my doppelgänger for me, always wanted to have a party with a room full of people who look like me.”
As long as conspiracy theories drive internet traffic — and advance political agendas — they’re unlikely to die down, at least until companies like Google and Facebook find a way to crack down on them. The students of Stoneman Douglas are not the first survivors of tragedy or activists to have their legitimacy questioned, and they probably won’t be the last.