In the mid-1990s, during the infancy of the World Wide Web, a visit to my local university library demonstrated that the Internet would be both a great tool of liberation and a megaphone for the fantastically mad. That small bank of Internet-connected computer terminals was reliably occupied by a few student researchers and an army of honking, snorting, flaky-skinned cranks, furiously posting to Internet bulletin boards. (I frequently traded pleasantries with one twitchy local who wore homemade body armor, claiming that it shielded his organs from computer smog while browsing the Internet.)
Almost 20 years later, behold how Tim Berners-Lee liberated the crackpot from his world of Manichean newsletters, how he freed the basement-dwelling “researcher” to hawk bad ideas to the undereducated and paranoid (think of the 9/11 “truth” movement). Indeed, the Internet allows us curious observers to view the creation of conspiracy theories in real time. For instance, while initial news reports of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., were plagued with dubious and false information—as is frequently the case with major tragedies—such “inconsistencies” precipitated a hunt for the real truth.
While ignoring the generic rantings that circulate via email and Facebook, I spent the past week browsing the websites and YouTube channels of the Internet’s most popular fear peddlers—those who almost, but not quite, trespass upon the mainstream—to witness the paranoid mind create an “alternative” explanation of the Newtown massacre.
It started with this story on BET.com. Def Jam rapper Gunplay, who currently is under house arrest on charges relating to an armed robbery, informed his 100,000 Twitter followers that the “Government killed dem [sic] kids to take our guns away. Another 9/11. Dont [sic] get it twisted.” It’s a surprisingly common belief among conspiracy theorists, I discovered, who claim not that the president seized upon the tragedy to push through onerous gun legislation—too simple—but that he engineered the tragedy.
Cui bono, ad absurdum.
Gunplay’s semi-literate tweet was later deleted, only to be replaced by a vague warning that President Obama had perpetrated a “gun hoax”—with a link to a febrile rant by talk-radio host Alex Jones. Jones, proprietor of the website Infowars.com and host of a wildly popular syndicated radio program, has acted as a clearing house for Sandy Hook conspiracies.
A king toad in the “New World Order” fever swamps, Jones has become wealthy and influential on the loopy fringe, while occasionally poking his head into the mainstream media conversation: in 2011, New York magazine reported that Jones’s radio show boasts “upwards of 3 million listeners” a day; his website is frequently linked to on the Drudge Report, ensuring that he’s read by millions; he recently was a guest on The Joy Behar Show; his radio show features well-known guests like actor Charlie Sheen, Congressman Ron Paul, Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano, and rapper KRS-One. In 2009, the vacuous celebrity duo Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt revealed themselves to be Jones apostles, appearing on his program to “discuss their awakening to the New World Order.” For reasons that elude me, Jones is one of those trolls the media doesn’t mind feeding.
After the Newtown shootings, Jones, typically unencumbered by facts, contended that “Prozac and its family of psychotropic drugs are at the heart of 99% off mass murder shootings.” Another Infowars.com writer warned that the Obama administration was stocking up on ammunition—because it was actively attempting to foment a civil war: “Why does the Department of Homeland Security—named after Hitler’s “Office of Fatherland Security” [sic]—need 1.6 billion rounds of ammo,” Infowars.com wondered.
In a fit of extreme profanity, Jones even claimed that certain parents of Sandy Hook victims were involved—wittingly or otherwise—in the conspiracy (without enumerating the goals or perpetrators of the conspiracy). Citing “independent researchers,” Jones pointed his readers to a press conference held by Robbie Parker, father of murdered 6-year-old victim Emilie Parker: “It appears that members of the media or government have given [Robbie Parker] a card and are telling him what to say as they steer reaction to this event, so this needs to be looked into.”
Thank God for American patriots like Jones, eh?
But the Infowars.com theory that gained the most traction involved Hollywood’s Batman film franchise. For some reason, the crackerjack researchers at Infowars.com “scoured the Batman movies and pored over various Gotham City maps to find anything that could support the theory that the movies may have had hints of foreknowledge of the tragic massacre that occurred last week, because where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.” “What we’ve found,” the site ominously claimed, “is interesting to say the least.”
I’ll spare you the “interesting” details—they are likely interesting only to mental-health experts—though needless to say an “Illuminati connection” was uncovered, which has subsequently been explored and adjudicated in hundreds of YouTube videos produced by Jones disciples.
But as is frequently the case, the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories would eventually slither toward more sinister territory. Because it isn’t a real conspiracy until someone invokes Jews.
Enter the anti-Semites at Press TV, the Iranian government’s English-language propaganda television station and companion website. Despite its source of funding and slavish adherence to Tehran’s line on all major issues, Press TV has managed to attract a number of mainstream—and semi-mainstream—presenters and commentators (most of whom are British) to launder its more poisonous views. Derek Conway, a former Conservative member of Britain’s parliament, hosts the book program “Epilogue,” previously anchored by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone. George Galloway, currently a member of parliament for Bradford West, presents a political chat show that “brings you news and views that you can not find in the corporate media.” Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan, frequently lauded as the world’s most influential Muslim moderate, anchors the program “Islam & Life.”
Beneath this patina of respectability—and none of those mentioned above should be mistaken for respectable political commentators—we find banner headlines like this on Press TV’s website: “[Israeli] death squads slaughtered American children at Sandy Hook.” According to James H. Fetzer, an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, “This is what Israel always does, they go after the children.” Fetzer, who still maintains a faculty page at the University of Minnesota’s website, sputters that “The Sandy Hook massacre appears to have been a psy op intended to strike fear in the hearts of Americans by the sheer brutality of the massacre, where the killing of children is a signature of terror ops conducted by agents of Israel.”
Unsurprisingly, editorial standards at Press TV are rather lax. In another rambling dispatch on the Connecticut shootings, which also suggested an Israeli connection, a Press TV contributor scoffed at another conspiracy theory, reporting that “Congresswoman Michelle [sic] Bachman [sic] of Minnesota equate[d] violence in schools with ‘Jihadi lunches.’ Bachman [sic] pointed out that schools that served ‘terrorist lunches’ that included falafel or hummus, substances she believes likely to draw down the ‘wrath of god,’ are responsible.” The claim was based on an article from the satire website dailycurrant.com.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has provoked yet another “national conversation” about gun laws, with smaller break-out sessions on the problems of mental-health diagnoses and treatment. And while it’s broadly accepted among the intelligentsia that America is afflicted with an intractable “gun problem,” fewer seem convinced that we’re in the midst of a large-scale mental-health crisis.
But ignore those New World Order-niks in the mainstream media: After a week among the anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists, the pop-eyed Infowarriors, and various autodidacts and “independent researchers,” I’m convinced that America is indeed overflowing with people who need their heads checked out.