"This is a simple, logical video," the text on the screen reads. "No aliens, holigrams, rituals or anything like that, just facts." (All sic.) There's some light piano (from Guns 'n Roses' "Estranged") playing in the background. "New information comes up every single days, so by the time you see this video there may be a lot more evidence that has come to light." In a few seconds, the guitar solo kicks in.
You're watching "The Sandy Hook Shooting - Fully Exposed," the most comprehensive summary of the bizarre "Sandy Hook Truther" movement you can find on the internet. It's also the most popular: in the seven days since it was posted, it's racked up 5.5 million hits. (Less than 24 hours after this article was first published, it jumped to 8.5 million.) "I... honestly would have spent more time on it if I had known it would explode," the guy who created the video told me.
It only took a few days after Adam Lanza opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School for conspiracy theories to pop up on the internet. We covered a bunch of them at the time, each less likely than the last: Lanza's father was due to testify in hearings about a banking scandal, and the shooting was a distraction; Obama orchestrated the shootings to enact gun control laws; The Dark Knight Returns and/or Hunger Games predicted the shooting.
As it turns out, the one that stuck was maybe the most unlikely of all: the Sandy Hook elementary shooting never happened at all. Or, that it did, in some way, but not as it was reported — there was more than one shooter, or not as many children died, or the parents we saw on television were actors.
Over the last month or so, the "Sandy Hook Truther" movement has taken hold in the usual channels of internet conspiracy — sites like InfoWars and Natural News, message boards like Godlike Productions and Above Top Secret, and most importantly, on YouTube, where self-produced mini-documentaries like "The Sandy Hook Shooting - Fully Exposed" can make the leap from obscurity to viral success without any mainstream coverage at all.
"[I]t all started when me and my friends used to research 9/11 in high school," the auteur behind the video told me over email. (He declined to give me a name or personal information, "due to the sensitivity of the channel and my concern for my security," and signed his emails T.O.T.V., after his YouTube channel's title "ThinkOutsidetTheTV.") "That's what really got me started when it came to researching government cover ups [...] Once I learned about all the false flag attacks in history that have been proven to be true, I knew it was only a matter of time before another came a long."
The "false flag attack," in which the true belligerents of an attack conceal their identities, is a common trope among conspiracy theorists, especially 9/11 Truthers, who believe the U.S. government (or another actor) destroyed the Twin Towers and pinned the attacks on Al Qaeda. While there are plenty of documented false flag attacks in history — all fervently cited by 9/11 true believers — they tend to be regarded by conspiracists as the rule and not the exception. Spend enough time in the YouTube conspiracy dregs and you see them everywhere.
"When Sandy Hook first happened i just had a feeling like it was all too perfect," T.O.T.V. continued. "I just had this feeling deep down that these people and the whole town had this artificial vibe about them." The perceived "artificiality" of the grieving parents is a cornerstone piece of "evidence" produced by Sandy Hook Truther: SandyHookHoax.com, the premiere Sandy Hook Truther site on the web, has an entire section called "All Actors," under an enormous header reading "NO TEARS," devoted to videos of families deemed insufficiently grief-stricken.
And not just families. Gene Rosen, a Newtown man who sheltered six children at his home near the school and later gave an emotional television interview, appears in T.O.T.V.'s video accompanied by the caption: "FUN FACT: Gene is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, look it up!" (He's not — the widely-circulated "proof" shows a 62-year-old SAG member named Gene Rosen; Gene Rosen of Newtown is 69.) As Alex Seitz-Wald, owning the Sandy Hook Truther beat at Salon, writes, Rosen has been the subject of harassment and accusation from Truthers:
There have been phony Google+ and YouTube accounts created in his name, messages on white supremacist message boards ridiculing the "emotional Jewish guy," and dozens of blog posts and videos "exposing" him as a fraud. One email purporting to be a business inquiry taunted: "How are all those little students doing? You know, the ones that showed up at your house after the ‘shooting'. What is the going rate for getting involved in a gov't sponsored hoax anyway?"
The idea that the U.S. government is somehow behind the shooting is widespread. Jay Johnson, who runs SandyHookHoax.com, thinks that the operation may have been a cover-up for the murder of Adam Lanza's mother, who "was costing his dad a lot of money": "Peter Lanza is reportedly an executive with GE, which is locally into genetic research and closely tied to the Obama regime." (Lanza does work for G.E., which is not "into" genetic research, and is not particularly "closely tied" to the current administration.)
Like many of his fellow conspiracists Johnson, who describes himself as "the New Age Messiah" and "the only person in the world to solve LOST" — the TV show — cites the confusion around the initial reports as a reason to believe his conspiracy. "There were early reports [Peter Lanza] was killed, and that is an impossibility, that such a thing would be randomly falsely reported. So, there has to be an unseen hand (unnamed law enforcement officials) feeding disinformation and misinformation, maybe to form an incomprehensible web to dissuade or confuse investigations?" There's an odd but unsurprising overdetermination to this line of thought — if early reports are conflicting, it's evidence of a conspiracy of misinformation; if everyone agrees on the story, it's a cover-up.
But mostly Johnson sticks to I'm-just-asking: the conspiracy is "offered as food for thought." For his part, T.O.T.V. takes the same stance, in email as in his video. "I really try to stress this video was about putting together a bunch of evidence and raising questions that others could research and answer," he wrote.
"I never intended to expose who was behind it because I dont know, and I could be wrong. But history repeats itself and i'm really glad people are waking up to it. [...] People seem to mistake my video for exploitation of victims and children and that is totally wrong. As I said in the beginning of the video, we in no way claim this shooting did not take place and our hearts go out to anyone affected by the tragedy, weather one person was responsible or another. [... S]tay tuned for part 2, we have learned from the first one how to improve upon the delivery so hopefully it will be even better than the first."