(RNN) – Conspiracy theories like those surrounding the Sandy Hook shootings are fomented by people who see the world in extremes of good and evil and who reject opposing viewpoints out of hand, said an expert on the subject.
Ted Goertzel, PhD., who is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, has published widely on conspiracy theories.
The Sandy Hook tragedy fueled a nationwide gun-control debate that spawned a super-viral video that claims there were multiple shooters at Sandy Hook. It also surmises the grieving parents, medical examiner and others seen in news reports were actors and web pages honoring victims were created before the attack.
Another bizarre theory claims two gun-rights activists who died within days of each other were murdered by government death squads (see sidebar).
The theories lack evidence and have been debunked on fact-check websites, including snopes.com. That doesn't matter to the people who believe them, Goertzel said.
They base arguments on their extreme perceptions of reality, and when facts go against those perceptions, they create a conspiracy theory.
"Some people view the world as a struggle between sharply opposed and clearly defined ‘good' and ‘evil' groups," Goertzel said by email. "When something happens in the world that seems to refute that, i.e. the forces of ‘good' actually do something evil, they use conspiracy theories as a way of denying that information.
"In this case, guns are ‘good' and the government is ‘evil' for some people. The mass shooting supports the arguments of gun control advocates, but only if it actually happened. If it was actually done by some evil force, [such as] the gun control lobby, then there is no problem. The conspiracy theory enables them to make this argument."
The people who put these theories forward really believe in what they are saying, Goertzel said, primarily because their views and method of presenting arguments are so one-sided.
"They generally limit themselves to debunking the other side and raising questions," he said. "If one of their suspicions doesn't pan out, that doesn't bother them much because they can just raise another."
The nature of breaking news contributes to errors and partial truths being reported and later retracted as more information is gathered. Those inconsistencies provide ammunition for conspiracy theorists.
This enables the theorists to use the rhetorical method of pointing out inconsistencies in the other side's argument rather than defending their own.
"There are always rumors and confusion after an event like this and people say contradictory things," he said. "Even eyewitnesses often disagree or remember things differently. They exploit these inconsistencies. They don't have to defend their own account, they just poke holes in everybody else's."
The logic of this meme follows the same patterns as others recent conspiracy theories:
They raise doubts by finding inconsistencies in news reports and eyewitness reports," he said. "And [rumors] spread very quickly today, usually with YouTube, but also with other social media."
Many people who espouse conspiracy theories manage to profit from them. People who produce documentaries, write books and become media personalities are probably not mercenary, Goertzel said.
"These are people who have had only modest success in conventional careers [like most of us]," he said. "And they find they can become minor celebrities by espousing oddball positions. They may publish books and get speaker's fees, but I doubt the motive is primarily financial.
"I think they enjoy being the center of attention."
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