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News anchors at WDBJ-TV7 in Roanoke, Va., observed a moment of silence Aug. 27, one day after reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed during a live broadcast.

Why High-Profile Murders Are Ripe for Conspiracy Theories

A history professor examines an American phenomenon.

The recent on-air shooting of a Virginia television reporter and her cameraman by a deeply troubled former co-worker prompted the familiar outcry for stricter gun control laws and mental health screening. But a radically different reaction, circulating in various corners of the Internet, suggested that the shootings never happened. Instead, these online theorists assert, the Aug. 26 attack near Roanoke was part of a vast government conspiracy to restrict their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Similar theories were put forth after the shooting deaths of 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, as well as the killing of 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Instead of actual gunfire and death, the theories go, the victims and their families are actually “crisis actors,” paid to portray scenes of artificial mayhem in order to gain political capital toward restricting access to guns. While conspiracy theories have a long history in America, the ground for such beliefs is more fertile than ever, argues Robert Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo recently spoke with Goldberg about why these conspiracy theories take hold so quickly among a certain segment of the population. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Historically, conspiracy theories have often focused on orchestrated wrongdoings supposedly perpetrated by big business or government on ordinary citizens. But recent conspiracy theories have focused on the victims and their loved ones as key players in the manipulation of the public. What has changed?

It’s usually the powerful who are seen as the plotters: the FBI, the CIA, the oil companies. And the ordinary folks — like Lee Harvey Oswald — are seen as just a patsy, just a pawn, manipulated by larger forces. What surprised me about Sandy Hook was the parents of the murdered kids being charged as being part of the conspiracy. I had not seen that before, where the ordinary citizens were portrayed as a part of the plot, rather than the ones being manipulated.

My sense is this suggests a growing perception that the power of the federal government is so vast it can manipulate anybody and everybody in its plot to take over and destroy the rights of Americans. It can take ordinary citizens and get them to cooperate and collaborate actively in regard to these cover-ups, with the idea that these are all part and parcel of a larger octopus of conspiracies to destroy American liberties and American rights.

And it’s not just the conspiracy theorists. Listening to the Republican debates a couple of weeks ago — they talk in short phrases or short sentences, and it's all wrapped up in this conspiratorial idea: what the government is going to do to us, how we need to protect ourselves, and life and liberty before tyranny. Those are the messages I'm hearing.

In your book you say that conspiracy theories are part of the American tradition. What makes America prone to them?

In America, we have deep-seated ideas that I believe cultivate and accommodate conspiracy thinking. The first is America’s sense of mission — which we’ve had since the country was founded — that this is God’s creation and that we’re doing God’s work. And when you have that impression, you know that you can always attract the attention of the devil or the evildoers.

A second piece is our American diversity, which in my mind is our strength as a country. But for many people, our diversity suggests that the enemy has come from within. That’s why we have the word “un-American,” and you don’t hear “un-French” or “un-Israeli” or “un-Russian.” It connotes the idea that we have people whose loyalty is always suspect. And that also very much relates to our obsession with guns.

Going back to the Colonial period, before the American revolution, there was concern about power, concentration of power in a central government. And to counter that, we have the Bill of Rights and the checks and balances system within the Constitution. The idea here is, American liberty depends on vigilance, depends on watchfulness, depends on suspiciousness, and this warning has been sounded by Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

What we’re seeing is a dramatic erosion of trust and faith in the American government and America’s basic institutions. In the late ‘50s, most people said they trusted government to do the right thing, and that’s fallen dramatically. And it’s not simply Washington. It’s the churches, universities, courts, and corporations. I think that underpins the power and the strength of conspiracy theories. People are willing to believe because they don’t trust their leaders and don’t trust their institutions.

And so their trust migrates elsewhere?

Exactly. Their trust migrates to the conspiracy theorists who first of all say, ‘We’re Paul Reveres, we are spreading the truth to the American people — despite the threat to our own life and limb.’ And when you have conspiracy theorists who are university professors or ministers or Republican presidential candidates, that gives this the aura of truth.

Think about a variety of crimes. Let’s say the death of Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, I can go on. These deaths are shrouded in conspiracy theories, and part of it is people want to come up with a reason for something happening. They want to believe that there is a meaning to something happening. But they also want to have the “facts” because that gives people a sense of power and ownership of an event. And finally, you want to be able to blame somebody, and blaming is very important, not only in American society but in every society.

And add another piece to this: the Internet. You go into this echo chamber, all saying that this is true, that this is possible. And what I argue is that people go onto the web, not for information, but for confirmation. If they’re already suspicious, they're going to find their suspicions validated, and what the psychologists say is the more and more you are presented with the truth of your opinion, the stronger you hold onto those opinions and the more extreme you get.

How does this relate to the perceived threat to gun rights?

This lack of trust is merging with the gun stuff. And I think that is going to be accelerating, because as we clutch and embrace our guns even more fervently, we’re going to be more and more susceptible to believing that a conspiracy theory is there. Recently, the American military was doing maneuvers in Texas, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. And the claim was that these exercises were actually designed to round up the patriots, take their guns and then put people in concentration camps inside empty Walmarts. All of this is wrapped together, because people who feel they are losing their rights also feel the only way to defend themselves is with their guns.