From Sandy Hook to Syria: the long trail of a conspiracy theory

Left to right: Alex Jones, Vanessa Beeley and George Galloway

Shortly before Christmas in 2012 a mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in the United States left 20 children and six teachers dead. Eight months later an incendiary bomb hit a school in Syria's Aleppo province, killing at least 10 students on the spot. Six other victims died later and many more were horribly burned.

Though unconnected and thousands of miles apart, these two attacks had one thing in common: both became the subject of a conspiracy theory which claimed they had been faked with help from so-called "crisis actors".

In the US, the Sandy Hook massacre brought renewed calls for stricter gun controls. Alarmed by that prospect, far-right elements responded by denying that a real attack had occurred, claiming instead that it was "staged" using paid actors in order to create a pretext for tightening the gun laws.

There was no good reason to believe their claim but its consequences for relatives of the Sandy Hook victims were appalling. Parents struggling to come to terms with the death of their child also had to deal with abuse and harassment from conspiracy theorists who denounced them as liars.

Prominent among those encouraging this nastiness was Alex Jones, a popular figure on the American far right who runs the fake news website InfoWars. A group of Sandy Hook parents eventually sued him – successfully – for defamation and a jury is now in the process of awarding damages. So far, Jones has been ordered to pay almost $50 million to two of the parents and compensation for the others is still to be decided.

Actors for hire

Jones's efforts to deny the Sandy Hook killings were central in popularising a relatively new type of conspiracy theory known as the "crisis actors" theory.

As with many such theories, it contained a grain of truth that made it sound vaguely plausible. Emergency services do sometimes employ actors, for example in disaster-simulation exercises and training videos. Just a few weeks before Sandy Hook, a Colorado-based organisation called VisionBox issued a press release saying it had "crisis actors" available specifically for that purpose:

"A new group of actors is now available nationwide for active shooter drills and mall shooting full-scale exercises, announced Visionbox, Denver's leading professional actors studio.

"Visionbox Crisis Actors are trained in criminal and victim behavior, and bring intense realism to simulated mass casualty incidents in public places.

"The actors’ stage acting experience, ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary American theater, enables them to 'stay in character' throughout an exercise, and improvise scenes of extreme stress while strictly following official exercise scenarios.

"The actors regularly rehearse scenarios involving the Incident Command System and crisis communications, and appear in interactive training films produced in both 2D and stereoscopic 3D ..."

As far as can be established, this was the first recorded use of the term "crisis actors".

The press release was spotted by a gun enthusiast known as Travis J Walker and in a blog post a few days after the Sandy Hook shooting he speculated that two government agencies – the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency – had staged it using actors to pose as survivors or witnesses. "These two agencies have more than enough resources, experience, and authority to carry out such an event," he wrote.

Since then, the "crisis actors" theory has been wheeled out to explain numerous other attacks in the US, including the Boston Marathon bombing (2012) and the Parkland shooting (2018). One of the attractions is how easily it can be adapted to deny reality in a variety of situations, and a few months after taking root in the US it surfaced again in connection with the conflict in Syria. This time, though, its promoters were "anti-imperialist" defenders of the Assad regime and, later, the Russian propaganda channel, RT.

Incendiary attack

In August 2013 a BBC crew were filming at a hospital in northern Syria (outside the regime’s control) when ambulances started arriving with youngsters suffering from burns. It emerged later that their school had been hit by an incendiary bomb. Scenes filmed in the hospital showed children disfigured by horrific injuries – some covered in blisters, others with strands of skin peeling from their bodies. Reporter Ian Pannell described the smell of burnt flesh as overpowering

Footage from the hospital was shown in two BBC news bulletins and later in a 50-minute Panorama documentary (starting here at 30:40).

One person disturbed by this was Robert Stuart – not because of the dreadful consequences of the attack but because he refused to believe it had happened. The children, he said, were only pretending to be injured and the BBC had faked the whole thing. He sent off a letter of complaint saying: “I am shocked and astonished that the BBC should present as genuine such self-evidently falsified and stage-managed scenes.”

As in the earlier example of Sandy Hook it was vile claim that mocked the suffering of the victims and their families. Simulating the burns would have needed a team of Hollywood-grade makeup artists and, considering the multitude of atrocities known to have taken place in Syria, there was no obvious reason for the BBC to fake one.

Besides engaging in a lengthy correspondence with the BBC, Stuart launched a campaign on social media which was still continuing more than five years later.

Among his more notable supporters was Craig Murray who had formerly served as Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan but turned to blogging and political activism after becoming disillusioned with the diplomatic service. Murray also disputed the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons and later falsely accused British police of faking video evidence relating to Russia's poisoning of the Skripals in 2018.

'War theatre'

Another supporter of Stuart was Vanessa Beeley, described by RT as “an independent investigative journalist”, whose misleading reports from Syria had turned her into a social media celebrity. After being photographed standing next to President Assad in 2016 she boasted on Twitter that it was her proudest moment.

Beeley was full of praise for Stuart's efforts. He had "masterfully and forensically" exposed the BBC's report as "nothing more than war theatre", she wrote.

In the US, "crisis actor" claims were usually based around a supposed plot to impose gun control, but that didn't explain why the BBC would want to use crisis actors in Syria. Beeley offered an explanation, though: the hospital scenes were faked “in order ratchet up UK military intervention in Syria".

Debate in parliament

At the time, Britain's parliament was considering whether to launch punitive airstrikes following a chemical attack which had killed hundreds of civilians in Ghouta, near Damascus, and was widely believed to have been carried out by the Assad regime. Film of the hospital scenes arrived in London on the day of the parliamentary debate and an initial report was broadcast late that evening.

This led conspiracy theorists to claim the BBC had timed its broadcast to influence parliament in favour of military action. However, a few basic checks would have shown that was impossible. By the time the report was first broadcast – on the 10pm news – the debate in parliament was already over and MPs were in the process of voting, without access to televisions as they did so. In the event, no military action was taken because parliament rejected the proposal.

Russia eventually took up the conspiracy theory too. A programme on RT called “The Truthseeker” claimed the BBC’s broadcast of scenes from the hospital had “unleashed a massive public investigation” (i.e. by Stuart) which made “some extremely disturbing findings”. It quoted Stuart as saying: “This is the total fabrication – from beginning to end – of an atrocity with BBC ‘reporter’ Ian Pannell standing amidst a tableau of very bad actors. This is completely beyond the pale.”

RT’s programme also included a brief appearance by George Galloway (a British MP at the time) who informed The Truthseeker’s viewers that the BBC had almost entirely lost its reputation for journalistic integrity. “A full enquiry must be launched into why the BBC used a piece of material which was not just wrong but was falsified, and falsified with the purpose of propelling our country into war.”