A history professor explains why Americans are so prone to conspiracy theories

Historians in the News
tags: conspiracy theories

The recent on-air shooting of a Virginia television reporter and her cameraman by a deeply troubled former co-worker prompted the familiar outcry for stricter gun control laws and mental health screening. 

But a radically different reaction, circulating in various corners of the Internet, suggested that the shootings never happened. Instead, these online theorists assert, the Aug. 26 attack near Roanoke was part of a vast government conspiracy to restrict their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Similar theories were put forth after the shooting deaths of 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, as well as the killing of 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Instead of actual gunfire and death, the theories go, the victims and their families are actually “crisis actors,” paid to portray scenes of artificial mayhem in order to gain political capital toward restricting access to guns. While conspiracy theories have a long history in America, the ground for such beliefs is more fertile than ever, argues Robert Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America.

The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo recently spoke with Goldberg about why these conspiracy theories take hold so quickly among a certain segment of the population. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. ...

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