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When Social Media Debunk Conspiracy Theories

A few days after the Parkland high school massacre, an aide to a Florida state legislator lost his job for claiming that two survivors were "not students here but actors that travel to various crisis [sic] when they happen." Such "crisis actor" rumors, which have spread after several recent public tragedies, are a reminder that people are capable of believing bizarre stories that are supported by only the thinnest alleged evidence. But some pundits think they represent something more: a breakdown in the media ecosystem.

A February 20 ThinkProgress article, to pick one representative example, announces in its lede that crisis-actor tales "have spread like wildfire across social media platforms—despite the repeated promises of Big Tech to crack down on fake news." The author circles back to that idea at the end, arguing that "the viral spread of the 'crisis actor' theory, along with other recent examples of highly-shared fake content, shows that [Facebook] is still ripe for misinformation and exploitation." One Facebook post touting the theory, he notes, has gotten more than 110,000 shares, and some of the videos promoting the idea have been "viewed tens of thousands of times."

That sounds less impressive when you start thinking about the context. We do not know how many of those 110,000 shares were trolls or bots, those crisis actors of the online world. Nor do we know how many people watch a video because they're inclined to believe it, how many watch because they're inclined to laugh at it, and how many just turn it off after 30 seconds. And what other numbers should we be examining? The day after the ThinkProgress piece appeared, MSNBC posted a video of a Parkland student reacting disdainfully to the idea that he's an imposter; within 24 hours, it had been viewed more than 94,000 times. That is also in the "tens of thousands." (Of course, we don't know how many of those viewers believed what they were hearing either.)

In my Twitter feed, the overwhelming majority of tweets mentioning crisis actors have denounced, debunked, or just made fun of the idea. That could simply reflect who I choose to follow, so shortly after the Florida aide was fired, I did a full Twitter search for "crisis actors" to see what cross-section of opinion would appear. Of the first 30 tweets that came up, two-thirds disdained the idea. When I did the same test on Facebook, I got roughly the same results. Meanwhile, some (though not all) of the Facebook posts promoting the idea were getting pushback in the comments, so this wasn't just a matter of conversations taking place in separate bubbles. Actual arguments were underway.

Obviously, these are not scientific samples. I'm not going to make grand claims about how many people have embraced or rejected the rumor. But what I saw reinforces what common sense would suggest: Widespread discussion of a bizarre belief is not the same as widespread support for a bizarre belief.

That is especially true when you remember three more things. First, many of the people who believe the crisis-actor theory—probably almost all of them—are already predisposed to believe tales like this. In an earlier era, with an earlier urban legend, they may well have whispered the story to each other in person.

Second, social media tend to make marginal ideas more visible. But this increased visibility does not always go hand in hand with increased popularity.

Third, more people still get their news primarily from TV than from social media. And TV coverage of the crisis-actor thesis has been overwhelmingly critical of it. Indeed, just about all the mainstream coverage has been negative.

The idea that the crisis-actor story is replicating unchallenged in some endless cancerous pattern may play to people's anxieties about social media. For anti-gun activists, it may also play to the pleasures of highlighting the most idiotic arguments on the other side. But out there in the actual internet, people were knocking these stories down. The criticisms of the conspiracy theory may well have been more viral than the theory itself.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

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  • TGoodchild||

    Is the author seriously proposing that David Hogg, et al., is not performing in the wake of a crisis?

  • Zebra Jr.||

    Are you acting now? The world's a stage?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Of course he is, but that's not what a "crisis actor" supposedly is. Rather, the idea is that a lot of crisis's, such as school shootings, are pre-planned, and actors are dispatched to be part of the event, to make it suitably dramatic, and be interviewed.

    This actually does happen to some extent with rioting, because a lot of riots ARE planned somewhat in advance, rather than being purely spontaneous, and there are people who travel from riot to riot for the looting opportunities. It's extremely unlikely that it's happening in the case of mass shootings.

  • ||

    I have always found it odd that they were having drills that day, this seems to be happening way too often for statistical probability to account for.

  • Finrod||

    In Ferguson, they didn't pay their protesters, so a ruckus was raised:

    https://www.weaselzippers.us/223908-ferguson- protesters-protest-not-getting-their-checks-for- protesting-from-their- organizers-list-of- payouts-to-protesters/ (some url assembly required)

  • VinniUSMC||

    performing in the wake of a crisis?

    That's not what "crisis actor" means.

  • SIV||

    A crisis actor is someone who plays the role of a victim. Hogg is a crisis actor.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Again, that's not what the term means. "Crisis actors" are actors in a staged crisis, evidence the crisis wasn't real.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    There is a conspiracy by gun grabbers to violate American's protected right to keep and bear Arms.

  • JoeBlow123||

    I want some bear arms, those guys are brawny.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    I'd only want bear arms if I could keep the opposable thumbs.

  • Tamfang||

    How about raccoon arms then?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    I want to mount machine guns on grizzlies, the right to arm bears.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I didn't know bears were into grabbing Arms too. Scary.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Unbelievable, the scum in the JournoList, after having lied to us for almost a year and a half now, has finally come out and admitted that the Negro Nixon and his hyperpoliticized government agencies were indeed spying on the Trump campaign. They even gave it a charming name called "Operation Crossfire Hurricane". This is the new COINTELPRO/Watergate Hotel break-in.

    I eagerly await the outrage over this blatant abuse of power from our good civil libertarians around here (ROFLMAO).

  • gormadoc||

    Are you just sad people aren't paying attention to you anymore?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I like his stuff. He has some inside knowledge about some of the lefties that frequent this website.

  • Jerryskids||

    Third, more people still get their news primarily from TV than from social media. And TV coverage of the crisis-actor thesis has been overwhelmingly critical of it. Indeed, just about all the mainstream coverage has been negative.

    I would suggest that the TV news isn't helping the case with their negative coverage. At this point, I would be more inclined to doubt the conspiracy theories if CNN reported the conspiracy theories were true.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If someone believes a fake news tweet that hurts your guy's chances, they weren't going to vote for your guy in the first place.

  • Bubba Jones||

    But if only people knew the truth, they would vote my way!

  • Brett Bellmore||

    There are two basic problems with "debunking" conspiracy theories:

    1. The tendency to confuse "debunking", (Actually proving a theory wrong.) and "disputing". (Merely asserting it is wrong.)

    2. The tendency to just assume that all "conspiracy" theories are false, without actually looking into them.

    These problems actually work to promote conspiracy theories, because it becomes pretty obvious that a so called "debunking" is often nothing of the sort.

    I recall the "black helicopter" theories, which were so endemic that they became a shorthand for nutty conspiracy theories. The problem here is that the helicopters were real. People were actually seeing them.

    The special forces were doing urban combat training in abandoned buildings, in cooperation with local governments. It wasn't top secret, but they weren't publicizing it, either. People would see the helicopters, contact local media, and the local media would just blow them off instead of finding out what was going on. Result, nutty conspiracy theories grew in the place of accurate explanations.

    You notice the current lack of black helicopter stories? The special forces finally got their own urban combat training facility, and stopped using abandoned buildings. The theories went away when the events stopped happening.

  • Radioactive||

    but...TRUMMMMMMMMP!!!!!!

  • sarcasmic||

    I thought the black helicopter stories were from deranged nutters until I saw them myself. They were circling a Phish concert up in northern Maine. Or maybe it was the acid. I dunno.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    See, for instance, They're back: Low-flying helicopters and planes are part of military exercise

    They're not announced in advance, because they don't want gawkers getting in the way. But at least they've learned to stop denying they're happening.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I remember when Donald Trump was supposedly a nut job for claiming that the FBI was spying on his campaign. That was treated like it was nuts at the time.

    There are other conspiracy theories that the media favors--like the one about how the Trump campaign collaborated with the Russians to ruin the 2016 election.

    The tendency has become more pronounced with the internet for people to believe facts based on whether they support their preferred conspiracy theory. People pick their conspiracy theory first, and as the facts come in, they're only believed to the extent that they support that theory.

    It results in serious contradictory beliefs. I've net people who are convinced that 1) Trump is a nutty conspiracy theorist for believing that the FBI was doing surveillance on his campaign and that 2) The warrant the FBI obtained based on the piss-gate dossier to do surveillance on the Trump campaign was perfectly legitimate.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    What were they going to say? "Of course he's being spied on, the NSA spies on EVERYONE."?

    Yeah, it is kind of surreal, that they can attack Trump for claiming he was being wiretapped with one breath, and in the next moment report on things that the wiretaps revealed.

  • Bowfish||

    Why did you bring the NSA into the discussion?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Who did you think did the actual wiretap? Comey himself, hanging Mission Impossible style in a utility tunnel in Trump Tower?

    The NSA taps almost all electronic communications in the US, and stores them away in an indexed database. All the FISA warrant does is authorize somebody to do a search on the database.

    The media aren't really big on talking about the details, because some of the implications are ugly.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Ugly and 100% unconstitutional.

    The media needs a politicized deep state to destroy America from the inside out.

    Himmler would have given his left nut to have the capability to record everything every German said or did via telecommunications.

  • MoreFreedom||

    What do you expect from the socialist politically connected MSM?

    I especially liked the 1/20/17 NYT story "Wiretapped Data Used In Inquiry Of Trump Aids". Then all of a sudden, once they realized they just told us Obama was wiretapping Trump's aids, they changed the story claiming there was no deliberate wiretapping, and it was just incidental wiretaps of Russians talking to Trump's aids. LOL If that were true, then why were American's names unmasked and used for an inquiry into Trump's aids?

    You're certainly right about lots of people (with TDS IMHO) having contradictory beliefs.

  • Tony||

    No flight of fancy is more absurd than the belief that the Trump people haven't been involved in rampant criminal behavior. Think of how many government agencies and law enforcement professional would have to be implicated in such a conspiracy.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Over 1 year of Mueller, every lefty alive, and the FBI turning up how much criminal behavior by Trump?

    None is right.

  • Tony||

    People are in prison already you unsalvageable dolt. Watergate took more than 2 years. And this is far worse than that. Don't take my work for it. If we have a functioning justice system by the end of this, you'll see for yourself.

    If you want to avoid the shock you might consider consuming media that isn't state propaganda. Just a thought.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Who's in prison? Nobody, you dolt.

    By worse than that, you mean more and more crazy lefties wasting millions in taxpayer money because Hillary lost?

    Anyone actually convicted of any crime relating to Mueller's charade will be pardoned by Trump just to piss off the lefties.

    Most of the media IS propaganda. Which means they lie. You might want to consider that.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Tony, you lefties really are delusional.

    I cannot wait until Hillary is investigated by a special prosecutor and lefties will be screaming about how long its taking to indict her.

  • Johnimo||

    Tony, we just "love" having you tell us how the world works. Your ideas are differently unique. Hang in there (here) and don't be discouraged because we question some of your stuff.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    EVERYBODY in the US is guilty of rampant criminal behavior. So many things are illegal in this country that you can't avoid breaking the law. Every time I clear my cookies so that I can see an extra article at the Washington Post I'm committing a crime!

    So, yeah, I believe Trump's people have been involved in criminal behavior. Does that mean they're more criminal than Obama's people, or Hillary's? Not really, but that's what is being implied.

  • Tony||

    Yes. By a lot. And nobody's talking about going 5 mph over the speed limit.

    This is pretty fucking serious, and you can only not know about it by a select diet of rightwing media. Denial isn't gonna keep this presidency from going down though.

  • Johnimo||

    How exactly will Trump be "going down"? After all this time, you must have some specifics.

  • Sevo||

    Tony|5.17.18 @ 12:56PM|#
    "Yes. By a lot. And nobody's talking about going 5 mph over the speed limit.
    This is pretty fucking serious..."

    OH! OH! Tony's found out about Elvis' alien love child on the grassy knoll!
    Fuck off, you pathetic excuse for humanity.

  • Sevo||

    Tony|5.17.18 @ 10:49AM|#
    "No flight of fancy is more absurd than the belief that the Trump people haven't been involved in rampant criminal behavior."

    "One year into Russia probe, Washington is rattled, uncertain"
    [...]
    "Robert Mueller's office has charged 19 people and three Russian companies. He has charged four Trump campaign advisers, including Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort."
    https://www.sfgate.com/nation/article/
    One-year-into-Russia-probe-
    Washington-is-12923856.php

    Yep, charged with an unpaid parking ticket.
    Fucking lefty imbeciles...

  • Jesse Walker||

    The special forces were doing urban combat training in abandoned buildings, in cooperation with local governments. It wasn't top secret, but they weren't publicizing it, either.

    That was part of it. In rural areas people were spotting DEA helicopters looking for pot. (IIRC these weren't actually black, but they were dark enough to get drawn into the lore.)

  • lafe.long||

    so shortly after the Florida aide was fired, I did a full Twitter search for "crisis actors" to see what cross-section of opinion would appear. Of the first 30 tweets that came up, two-thirds disdained the idea. When I did the same test on Facebook, I got roughly the same results.

    If you were logged in to your accounts on either service when you did your test searches, the results are pretty much worthless.
    Even if you were not logged in, but did the searches from a device/browser on which you've used previously used those services, the results are worthless.

  • Wrath0fKahn||

    This is just because this particular misinformation offends them. Wake me up when ThinkProgress is lamenting that a majority of journos think the gender wage gap a real thing or that sex hormones have no affect of brain or behavioral development. Those are shamefully ignorant and partisan stances that are wide spread in the parts of culture and discourse we're all told to trust.

    The technocrats are just pissed that plebes have their own platforms now and want their gatekeeper status back.

  • Azathoth!!||

    So, what you're saying is that social media is debunking the fake news put forth by the MSM wherein the MSM is acting as if there's this huge group of people who believe 'crisis actors' are real?

    Because I can see that. Professional journalism is becoming a cesspool of lies, half truths and far-fetched conspiracy theories.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    *becoming*?

    More like *is*

  • Tony||

    Because they dare to push back on Trump and Huckleberry's lies?

    Now is the time to take a lifeboat and get as far away from USS Trump as you can. I say that not as as friend, but as someone who can see and hear at a rudimentary level.

  • Bowfish||

    The article wan't about anything Trump. It claimed that Social Media had debunked "crisis actors" but never mentioned the fact that the Hogg types were lying on multiple fronts - suggesting that there is more than one definition of a "crisis actor."

  • SIV||

    there is more than one definition of a "crisis actor."
    ^exactly this^

    The term means people who volunteer or are paid to play victims in an exercise such as the response to a simulated traumatic event. If the event is real, but people who aren't really victims play the role, say to ride on stretchers or dress in bloody bandages (or apply foam to the mouth toplay poison gas victims from a conventional weapon attack as has been alleged in Syria) to exaggerate or dramatize the event, they are crisis actors too.

    (Photo/video from another event presented as being from either a real or fake event could be thought of as "crisis stock footage")

    Hogg, Kasky, Gonzales etc were drama students who volunteered or were recruited to be the public face of victims of the school massacre. They were quickly organized by AFT union members, immediately fully-funded by liberal donors and coached and directed by a gun control group They were at the school but not in the building where the shooting took place*. They are crisis actors.

    (*Think of the VA Tech massacre, was every student on campus that day a "victim"? Or just the ones who were in the classroom building where Cho committed the massacre)

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Most of the media are propagandists. We even have them at Reason.

  • ||

    Nice subtle jab at Dalmia

  • T. Lord||

    The problem is that a few crisis actors spoils the barrel. Not buying into a particular, particularly nutty conspiracy theory doesn't mean that there's no such thing as propaganda of the crisis-actor variety. (Pick your side and your issue -- the spy vs. counterspy of it all gets hard to cut through, though.)

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Now if we can get social media to debunk the Russian meddling rumours.

  • Delius||

    Television coverage of the crisis actor nonsense may have been largely critical, but what about the dozens of other conspiracy theories propagated by Fox? Where do you think the whole ridiculous "pizzagate" thing got its legs from?

  • Echospinner||

    Pretty easy to get a conspiracy theory going. For example just go to any right wing website and add the name Soros to the topic and people will nod in agreement.

  • Mark22||

    Why do you need conspiracy theories about Soros? His attempts to manipulate economies and politics around the world are quite open and transparent and he stands by them.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Pizzagate imported its legs from Rotherham and London.

    It was plausible, because we knew it happened in other countries. It was plausible, because who exactly who took a ride on Jeffrey Epstein's "Lolita express" ever got prosecuted?

    It may have been wrong, but we don't live in a world where it was ridiculous.

  • ||

    See the Franklin Cover up, I believe this is where it stemmed from.

  • Mark22||

    but what about the dozens of other conspiracy theories propagated by Fox? Where do you think the whole ridiculous "pizzagate" thing got its legs from?

    Conspiracy theories tend to condense some latent feeling into a concrete idea. Pizzagate reflected problems of Democrats with dealing with sex. Birtherism reflected America's unease with Obama's un-American world view and policies. Crisis actors reflects the fact that student victims are being used for propaganda purposes.

  • Echospinner||

    Don't know if anybody remembers Art Bell who recently passed away. For some years when I was working late shift I would listen to his radio show on the way home which was all about paranormal, UFOs, black helicopters all that stuff. It was great entertainment and he was a terrific broadcaster. Anyway just wanted to mention him.

    That sort of thing is fun and harmless. Some of this fake news going on is far from that.

  • Mark22||

    We do not know how many of those 110,000 shares were trolls or bots, those crisis actors of the online world. Nor do we know how many people watch a video because they're inclined to believe it, how many watch because they're inclined to laugh at it, and how many just turn it off after 30 seconds.

    How about people who listen to it with an open mind and then conclude that its claims are wrong?

    How about understanding that a lot of memes and outrageous claims are not about literal truth but about getting people to think? That oversimplification and exaggeration are common teaching devices to make people think?

  • ||

    Remember when people thought the intentional sinking of the Lusitania, and FDR knowing about Pearl Harbor well in advance were akin to treason? Or that the Soviets built, anything, on their own?

  • Longtobefree||

    Social media is for social posturing, it is not news. It will never be news. MSM is not news, either.
    'News' reports true facts, confirmed and verified by personal research of the reporter, and cites named, reliable, verifiable, sources. Or at least that is what is in the history books printed before the last ten years.

  • JonFrum||

    Ah, this again. It never seems to occur to sky-is-falling bloviators that the people who most ardently push these outrageous theories don't believe them themselves. Stop and think - what better way to pull the chain of the anti-gun crowd than to announce that their most heart-tugging protests are frauds? This is just another way to kick an anti-gun liberal in the balls.

    Of course, accepting that what I'm saying might be right requires you to admit that you've been taken in. And that would be just too painful to contemplate, right?

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