Conspiracy crowd
working overtime since Las Vegas shooting


Illustration by
Wesley Rand/ Las Vegas Review-Journal


By Henry Brean and
Colton Lochhead Las Vegas Review-Journal


The conspiracy crowd
took to the internet almost as soon as the gunfire stopped.


Every mass-casualty
event attracts its share of crackpots, and the Oct. 1 attack in Las Vegas would
be no different.


Shaky cell phone
videos of a flashing strobe light became proof of a second shooter.


Sketchy accounts
from traumatized tourists fueled narratives of a coordinated terrorist attack
and a far-reaching cover-up.


The lack of a clear
motive spawned wild claims that Stephen Paddock was a patsy or a spy — or maybe
even still alive somewhere.


Already, Clark
County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said he has seen more conspiracies and
misinformation about this investigation than he has in other high-profile
cases. The “keyboard tough guys” are out in force, he said.


Some of the stories
were created or repeated by unscrupulous websites looking to cash in on the
tragedy.


Undoubtedly, the
loved ones of those killed in the attack have seen the fake news too, some of
it hurtful, even dismissive of what they have lost.


“You just
purposefully have to ignore it,” the sheriff said. “We’re being transparent, as
far as I’m concerned. … I hope my comments are strong enough that people
believe what we’re saying versus what they read on the internet.”


“Explanation for
everything”


There’s certainly no
shortage of unsubstantiated or factually incorrect stuff to read.


“I would say that
there is a definitely an increase,” said journalist Bethania Palma from
Snopes.com, the largest and oldest fact-checking site on the web. “It’s getting
multiplied by the internet. It’s a lot more immediate.”


Snopes.com, which
has doubled the size of its editorial staff in the past year or so, has already
published fact checks on several false reports from the Las Vegas shooting.


But it’s hard to
keep up, Palma said. “Fake news can be produced so quickly and cheaply.”


Many of the
conspiracy theories she has heard so far follow the “false flag,” New World
Order narrative popularized by Alex Jones’ Infowars website: Basically, the
attack was staged as an excuse to take away people’s guns, clearing the way for
the secret, totalitarian world government to take over.


Palma said she
traveled to Las Vegas last weekend to get a first-hand look at the scene, talk
to people who were there and get answers she just couldn’t get from her home in
Southern California.


“I was surprised to
talk to so many people who believed the second-shooter conspiracy theory,” she
said.


Some of the
conspiracies are rooted in early reports heard over police scanners. Others are
pinned to discrepancies in the information released by the authorities,
something that is almost guaranteed to happen after an incident of this
magnitude, Palma said. “There’s an explanation for everything people are
posting.”


Even some witnesses
emerged from the attack with versions of events that just weren’t true. Chaos,
trauma and fear play tricks on people, Palma said.


“This is a crowd of
22,000 people who went to a country music concert that turned into a massacre,”
she said.


Chasing tips, not
ghosts


Former Aurora,
Colorado, Police Chief Dan Oates said the conspiracies got really bad after the
movie theater shooting there in 2012. People took to the internet to claim the
attack never happened, that no one died and that the shooter, James Holmes, was
innocent.


“Really perverse
crap,” said Oates, who is now the chief of police in Miami Beach, Florida.


One person even
found a way to contact one of the victim’s mothers and told her that her son
wasn’t dead. Oates said they tracked that person down in Oregon and had him
arrested.


Ultimately, it’s up
to the authorities to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Tips can be important
— even crucial — to an investigation, so if the public has legitimate
information to share, Lombardo said his department won’t ignore it.


“But there’s some
things out there I’ve just got to throw the bull—— flag at. We can’t be wasting
our time and resources chasing them,” he said. “We can’t spend our time chasing
ghosts.”


Self-feeding
fantasties


University of
Massachusetts professor Kirby Farrell is a regular contributor to Psychology
Today and the author of a 2015 book about America’s fascination with rampage
killings.


He prefers the term
“conspiracy fantasies,” not theories.


Farrell said the
need to invent — or to believe — elaborate and often unprovable explanations
for attacks like the one in Las Vegas is rooted in fear and avoidance. It is an
attempt to “sanitize or wish away the inexplicable violence that overtakes
certain individuals,” he said.


“Conspiracy
fantasies are a kind of sophisticated game people play to prop up or reinforce
denial,” Farrell said.


The internet merely
increases their reach, while social media guarantees delivery to a receptive
audience.


“In a way, everybody
has become an individual publisher,” Farrell said. “People compete to see who
can attract the most attention.”


And much like the
perpetrators of mass killings, those who traffic in conspiracy fantasties tend
to feed off each other, he said. “There’s a kind of copycat quality in both.”


Early reports
unreliable


Radio show host and
freelance Review-Journal editorial page columnist Wayne Allyn Root was among
those criticized for spreading misinformation on the night of the Las Vegas
attack. In a Twitter post from his personal account at 11:51


p.m. Oct. 1, he wrote
that shots had been fired at seven different resorts on the Strip. A minute
later, he told his 110,000 Twitter followers that the shooting was a “clearly
coordinated Muslim terror attack.”


Root stands by what
he did.


“I do NOT deal in
conspiracy theories,” he said in an email.


Root insists
everything he posted that night was based on information he was getting
directly from law enforcement sources.


“It looked exactly
like an ISIS terror attack, and I made a split second decision to warn people
in Vegas and get them out of harm’s way,” Root said. “And I’d do it again if I
could save lives.”


Social-media and
video-sharing sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube now serve as the primary
conduit for false reports and outright hoaxes. Recently, though, the web has
seen a proliferation of fake news sites that seek to profit by spreading lies
after a tragedy.


“It’s no question
that a lot of these sites are making money off the ad revenue from the clicks
they’re getting,” Palma said.


Lies that linger


Transparency is one
effective way to combat the conspiracy crowd, she said.


But even the most
baseless stories can be stubborn. No amount of evidence to the contrary will
make them go away. No amount of public shaming will silence the people
spreading them.


Palma said she
recently spoke to the parent of a child murdered during the 2012 massacre at
Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The families of the
victims are still being harassed by people who believe the shooting was faked
and so were the deaths of their children.


“People in Las Vegas
should be ready for that sort of thing,” she said.


Contact Henry Brean
at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or
702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.


Contact Colton
Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com
or 702-383-4638. Follow @coltonlochhead on Twitter.


A cascade of
conspiracies


In the hours and
days following the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, online chat
rooms and fake news sites lit up with unsubstantiated claims and outright
hoaxes about the victims and the perpetrator of the attack. Here are a few of
the more prevalent conspiracy theories bouncing around the internet, all of
them either flatly denied by authorities or debunked by evidence at hand:


— A second gunman fired into the crowd from a lower floor of
Mandalay Bay.


— Multiple gunmen fired shots inside several other resorts on
the Strip, but police and the mainstream media are covering up those incidents.


— The gunman was secretly a member of: ISIS; antifa or some
other far-left faction; or the CIA.


— A woman ran through the crowd at the festival before the
attack, telling people they were all going to die.


— Unusual stock market activity suggests a host of
high-ranking business people, including George Soros, knew about the attack as
much as a month in advance.


— The gunman survived the attack — and then was spotted
gambling in a casino a few days later.


— The gunman wasn’t really the gunman. He was set up by the
real shooter or shooters.


— The attack was carried out and/or faked as an excuse to ban
guns or boost the sale of metal detectors made by companies secretly owned by
the people who planned the attack in the first place.

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