What Do You Say to a Roanoke Truther?
Trolls told Chris Hurst his grief over losing his girlfriend in the murders was a lie. But I’ve known him for years. Maybe, I thought, I could get them to listen.
Chris Hurst spent the last two weeks trying not to cry on television while telling the world how beautiful his life with his girlfriend was before she was murdered for no reason.
Chris is a friend from college. Chris and I hosted a radio show together.
Or, according to millions of conspiracy theorists online, Chris Hurst is a part of my imagination.
In the minds—and YouTube videos—of some conspiracy theorists, Chris is not a news anchor at WDBJ in Virginia. Chris, the videos say, is a “crisis actor" invented less than a month ago by the United States government as part of a false flag operation that will eventually allow the New World Order to take away every American citizen’s guns and force them into a life of subjugation and tyranny.
Every day now, Chris wakes up to find strangers’ hate on his Facebook wall that he has to personally delete. Or he’ll Google Alison to find the people he has to thank for donating to her scholarships and he’ll see, instead, another conspiracy theory YouTube video, viewed 800,000 times over, that says Alison was in on it all along, and that she’s been given a new life and maybe plastic surgery by the government.
“It happened again about an hour ago,” Chris says. “It’s hard for me to manage that because I hit land mines when I do. They have all these details I don’t want to know.”
The most recent one says Alison was dating someone else and that she and Chris were never together at all. That person is really Alison’s ex-boyfriend, who conspiracists found by looking through her old Facebook photos.
Two weeks after he lost the love of his life in the most gruesome and devastating way imaginable, this is what he has to sit through when he turns on his computer each morning.
“The hoax theories have taken a toll for sure,” he says. “I’ve definitely felt it more than anyone. I’m the one with the Facebook and Twitter page.”
It is simply easier for some people to believe that the United States government has concocted a vast conspiracy to take away all of our guns than it is to believe that it is too easy for a mentally ill person to acquire one and shoot anyone they want.
And now those same people are taking it out on the families of the victims of gun violence after a tragedy.
The last decade has seen a boon for “crisis actor” conspiracies on the Web and—along with them—a new set of psychologists and philosophers are trying to understand how people get dragged so far away from reality. Many of these thinkers have settled on a basic premise—and it’s one that could help explain the mass-shooting-per-day epidemic in America, too.
“Conspiracy theorists are, I submit, some of the last believers in an ordered universe,” Pitzer College philosophy professor Brian Keeley wrote in Of Conspiracy Theories. “By supposing that current events are under the control of nefarious agents, conspiracy theories entail that such events are capable of being controlled.”
In other words, if nothing’s an accident and there are no lone wolf attacks or gunfights over petty grievances, then there is no gun problem. There is no mental health problem, either. For those who believe in crisis class theory, there are just big, theatrical attacks put on by the real problem: whoever is in charge.
All you have to do is forget about the 2,567 people left dead by gun accidents, lone wolf attacks, and gunfights over petty grievances that weren't caught on camera between June’s mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the live-on-TV execution two weeks ago.
All you have to do is refuse to admit, as Keeley’s same academic paper notes in its introduction, that "shit happens.”
Instead, every death—workplace death by gun, school death by gun, hunting accident death by gun—is part of a diabolical plan to control the United States, no matter what. For what purpose? The answer is unclear.
But when I talk to “Thom,” a conspiracy theorist who has racked up millions of views on YouTube by telling people that Chris and Alison are crisis actors for the U.S. government, he has a much different explanation for all of it:
“You’re being duped.”
I saw the worst video by mistake. A newsroom coworker muttered, “Oh my God, is he Tweeting?” Then there was Vester Lee Flanagan’s shoddy GoPro footage autoplaying on a computer behind me, a monster walking towards Adam Ward and Alison Parker with a handgun.
I couldn’t turn it off fast enough. I saw the whole thing.
I wretched. I went outside to cry, like a child, like an idiot.
This is the opposite of how Thom reacted.
“The underground footage from the shooter’s perspective—that’s what really sparked my interest into the event,” says Thom, who refused to give his last name to The Daily Beast. “It seems odd to me that the shooter walked right up.”
Thom says he was one of the first people on YouTube to bring up what he considers to be inconsistencies between Flanagan’s video of the shooting and the one that aired on WDBJ. He says that the shooter points his gun at Parker’s face for over 20 seconds. (This, by the way, is not true.)
“You can count the 23 seconds he stands there with a gun in Alison Parker’s face. That sparked my interest from the get-go. You had that going on,” he says.
Then Thom saw Chris mourn on television and he was convinced: These people are put up to it by the same actors who did the Sandy Hook shooting.
“The reactions didn’t seem genuine to me. The lines seemed scripted. For instance, Chris Hurst would come out and say ‘We’re the cutest, newsiest, prettiest couple ever.’ Of course, he was reading from a photo diary or whatever,” he says. “You look at Chris Hurst, specifically, he would give the same answers to different reporters, word-for-word.”
Thom believes it would be impossible to keep it together after the death of a loved one.
It’s a reaction that Chris finds monstrous. He feels as if he’s being punished for his strength.
“I cried for days, but tried to be strong on TV for her,” he says. “But because I [went on TV] and didn’t break down, now I’m all of a sudden an actor.”
Still, that sentiment was enough to get 792,000 people to watch Thom’s video on YouTube under one of his channels, “PressResetUltimate.” When you Google Chris’s name, the video—“Crisis Actor REVEALED! Victim’s BF Chris Hurst”—appears on the first page of results.
“I think, in the end, a lot of these groups are behind the scenes perpetrating these false-flag hoaxes in an effort to install a totalitarian government—not only in America but all over the globe," he says.
Brian Keeley has heard Thom’s entire spiel before. In fact, he’s heard it for decades.
In 1999, he wrote the book on it—well, the academic journal entry on it—that has grown prescient in the age of the crisis actor. At their core, he says, people like Thom fail to grasp a simple idea: Sometimes things just happen, often for no discernible reason whatsoever.
“Just as with the physical world, where hurricanes, tornadoes, and other ‘acts of God’ just happen, the same is true of the social world,” he wrote. “Some people just do things. They assassinate world leaders, act on poorly thought out ideologies, and leave clues at the scene of the crime. Too strong a belief in the rationality of people in general, or of the world, will lead us to seek purposive explanations where none exists.”
He says conspiracy theorists rely on what he calls “errant data,” or random minutiae within a terror attack or major event that can—and maybe should—go unexplained in reality. Those pushing conspiracies, however, seize on that unexplained info and attempt to explain it in full.
It is an effort to connect every dot on the map—every blade of grass on the Grassy Knoll—even if some dots have nothing to with the larger event at all.
“The crisis actor thing is interesting. These are people who are trying to be rational and they're presented with these grieving people. They need to make sense of that data, so their only rational explanation is, ‘Those people are lying. Those people are paid actors,’” Keeley tells The Daily Beast. “That’s the only way you can make sense of it with your own two eyes.”
In other words, there's no real logic that can prove crisis-actor conspiracies wrong to people who really want them to be right.
“‘Crisis’ class theory is first and foremost a phenomenon of the Internet Age, and is perfectly suited to the enormous amount of documentary evidence surrounding recent events,” writes Michael Wood. “While a false-flag scenario might have trouble explaining a particular apparent anomaly, a staged-hoax theory would have no trouble doing so.”
Wood is a psychologist and lecturer at the University of Winchester and wrote extensively about crisis actors in 2013. He calls it the “future of Internet conspiracism.”
And Wood’s thesis gets to the heart of why people like Thom likely believe what he does: Crisis class theory is a weirdly hopeful, terribly reductionist coping mechanism, a way to explain a world that can be unjust and needlessly cruel—but wouldn’t be if the “bad guys” controlling it all were vanquished.
“There is surely some psychological comfort in believing that a horrific event like a mass murder of schoolchildren never really happened at all—that it was all fake,” he writes.
Instead conspiracy theories often work to dispel bad press affecting the theorist’s own social groups. Gun owners, for example, work to implicate every other trait about mass shooters except their one common bond: access to a gun for long enough to kill several people.
“We call it ‘social threat’ in psychology, and a lot of psychology is how we deal with these sorts of threats. It’s a tribal thing,” says Wood. “We see these sorts of mass shootings. If you’re a gun owner, you have a lot invested in this, yourself. You have a motivation to take this out of your wheelhouse. If all you know about somebody is that they own a gun, you’re automatically motivated to discount it.”
Sure enough, Thom believes “one of the reasons why the American people have so much freedom and so much power is because of our right to bear arms that acts as a firewall or insurance policy against a tyrannical government.”
Thom is nowhere near alone in this. He’s one of countless thousands who’ve descended in recent years into the weeds of false flags and crisis actors. It’s a “kind of explosion” of conspiracy theories that began popping up around 2009, according to professor Joe Uscinski.
“This happens for every president. It’s not just birthers, with President Obama. In 2001, a building blows up, and some people think George W. Bush did it,” says Uscinski. “In fact, there are the same number of [9/11] truthers as there are birthers.”
Uscinski wrote “Conspiracy Theories Are for Losers,” which posits that conspiracy theories pervade amongst members of parties who are out of power and feel helpless in a political tide moving in the opposite direction.
Barack Obama’s election spurred countless new conspiracy theories around the 2008 election, and Thom fell into a lot of them. That year, he says he started reading up on conspiracies about the financial crisis as a freshman in college, while studying for his BA in business.
“You see this scapegoating as a social phenomenon against some gun owners who stake a lot of their social identity on that,” says Wood.
So they fight back. On the Internet, everything’s a false flag if you look hard enough. Now, semi-educated anonymous people believe they’re “telling the truth in a society of lies,” like Thom says.
And if that’s all it was—if Thom and his co-conspirators were just spinning a comforting story for themselves—it might not be so bad. But Thom has been spending the last two weeks ruining my friend’s already broken life.
Thom is crushing a victim for a second time, and he doesn’t know or care that the victim can see it.
So then I come out with it. I tell Thom that I know Chris.
I decide to make an appeal. I decide to try to stop Thom from doing all of this to my friend.
I decide to tell Thom a story. Nervous, it comes out inelegantly, in pieces.
It goes like this. One day, Chris and I forgot to bring headphones to our college radio show. I’ll repeat that: We didn’t bring headphones—the only thing a person truly needs to make sure he or she is on the air—to a radio show.
By the end, we thought we’d pulled it off. We’d done an hour of radio without the second-most important piece of equipment! A genuine miracle!
Of course, we didn’t pull it off. Since we didn’t have headphones, we didn’t realize that we hadn’t aired a thing. What we really did was turn off the whole radio station for an entire night. We pressed the wrong buttons at the wrong time. We left the studio, oblivious.
The programming director brought us in a few days later to scream the words “literal radio silence!" to us over and over again. The incompetence was staggering, and we were ashamed before it became a very funny memory.
I bring up the radio show to Thom to say this: If Chris Hurst is a fake, he’s terrible at it. If Chris Hurst is a crisis actor working for the United States government in a long-term plot to strip U.S. citizens of their guns and freedom, he is the worst one in the world.
I ask Thom, How would you respond to that?
Then, silence. Seconds of strained, shifty quiet.
“My response to that is either he’s being duped or you’re being duped. This woman, Alison, I don’t know where she is. It’s my suspicion that you’re being duped, if that’s the case. It looks like the guy is acting. It doesn’t seem like he’s being genuine,” says Thom.
But what if you’re wrong? Have you considered that? Have you considered what it would be like to be Chris?
I have been so respectful. I have been too respectful. I am trying, for some reason, to convince Thom that I’m not in on it, that I’m fallible enough but still professional. I’m trying not to appear to him to be part of a problem he is wholly dreaming up. I am trying not to yell.
I’m trying to be the one person who says, You’re wrong, but I hear you.
This way is supposed to work, the academics tell me. Listen to the lost people, and sometimes they will hear you out in return.
I am being nice, still. I am trying to get him to see the life he is destroying again every morning.
I’m trying not to say, How could you?
I say, What if you’re wrong?
“If I am indeed wrong then I feel bad for the guy. It’s a terrible tragedy. But that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna have my opinion. That’s just what I see,” he says. “If that happened to me—and it really did happen—and people were calling it a false flag or a hoax, I would disagree with them. But I would have to respect their freedom of speech.”
But really, Thom, really, this is the worst thing that could happen to anyone. He watched his to-be fiancée die in an unrepeatable way. He almost evaded seeing a picture of her death until the morning after it happened, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. He saw it on the cover of the New York Daily News. He saw his soulmate shot in three frames, one alive, one bracing for a bullet, and one as she was dying, and he writes to me and he says, “I broke when I saw the Daily News.” And then he goes onto his Facebook wall one morning and someone says that she was an actor all along, or that she’s alive on an island somewhere, or that he was part of her death, or that he and the love of his life were never in love all along and this was you, Thom, and now this happens every morning, and this was you who started it, Thom, I mean, really, Thom, really.
What if you’re wrong?
“If I’m wrong, my heart goes out to Alison’s family and Chris Hurst, but it’s my opinion that it’s not obviously wrong.”
Thom. That’s not enough.