In the weeks since the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, fringe conspiracy theorists have suggested that the shooting rampage there was staged or even perpetrated by the government to advance an anti-gun agenda—claims so absurd that even Glenn Beck has denounced them as preposterous.

The fact that these theories have been circulating should not surprise us; tragedies frequently give rise to anti-government conspiracy myths (9/11, Waco, etc.). More surprising—and unfortunate—is how much attention some media outlets are devoting to these claims, which have not been endorsed by any prominent politicians or commentators. While the coverage to date has generally sought to marginalize these conspiracy-mongers, it risks drawing more attention to their false claims and propagating the myth further.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, for instance, has devoted two segments of his show to denouncing James Tracy, a Florida Atlantic University professor who has questioned media reports about what happened at Sandy Hook. Cooper’s flimsy justification for these reports is that Tracy works at a public university. As he put it Wednesday, “normally we wouldn’t dignify these types of remarks by covering them but James Tracy is a tenured professor at a public university.” Regardless, Tracy is still an obscure figure of no particular influence. His views deserve little attention, but unfortunately Cooper took the bait, seizing the opportunity to righteously denounce a crackpot on air.

Besides Cooper, the media figure who has done the most to draw attention to the Sandy Hook fringe is Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald, who has flooded the zone with a long series of reports. (Disclosure: I was the co-editor of Spinsanity, which was syndicated on Salon in 2002.) On Friday, he also offered one of the most extensive defenses to date of covering the so-called Sandy Hook truthers—arguing, in short, that the conspiracy theories are being discussed widely online and should not be ignored:

We’ve been writing a lot about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting—some say too much. “Why you’re giving these Sandy Hook truther media whores the time of day. Ignore them and they go away [sic],” one reader emailed.

Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case. The genie is already out of the bottle and this myth will likely only heat up as the debate over gun control does…

The true believers will probably never come around—confirmation bias will make them deaf to any conflicting evidence—but experts say the way to fight conspiracy theories is to prevent them from spreading. The only way we can do that is by first acknowledging that we have a problem.

Earlier that day, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith and C.J. Lotz outlined a similar case for media coverage based in part on online traffic statistics:

The theory is ludicrous, but there is hard evidence that it has begun to go viral. The leading, anonymous, 30-minute video created by YouTube user ThinkOutsideTheTV had been viewed 10.6 million times by Friday morning…

The media is often reluctant to engage such theories directly. The political press spent much of 2007 and 2008 ignoring grassroots conservative beliefs that President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and that his wife had thrown around the epithet “whitey.” But both of those eventually became so widespread, embraced by local elected officials and other public figures, that they were impossible to ignore; their course served as a template for Obama’s being forced to display, from the White House podium, his birth certificate.

Now the media is on the cusp of having to struggle with whether or not to cover and debunk another insane theory, at the cost of—critics say—dignifying it. But at some point they may not have a choice: At least one Newtown resident told Salon that he’s begun to receive harassment accusing him of cooperating with a government cover-up.

Seitz-Wald and his counterparts at Buzzfeed are correct that these myths are widely circulating, of course—the volume of traffic that conspiracy-mongering can draw in 2013 is staggering. But these ideas are still fringe ones. If they were crossing over to the mainstream, we would see leading media figures and politicians endorsing or promoting them (as we did with the birther movement, for instance). But neither Smith and Lotz nor Seitz-Wald can identify a single prominent advocate of the Sandy Hoax truthers’ claims. Instead, they point to obscure incidents like a blog post by the Florida Atlantic professor, an online video from a local Fox reporter in Cincinnati, and a single tweet sent by an outfielder on the Washington Nationals—a flimsy roster of supporters that doesn’t suggest a need for sustained coverage.

And even if we do treat the myth as a relevant news topic, it’s not clear, as Seitz-Wald suggests, that mainstream media coverage will help prevent it from spreading. My research suggests that factchecks may not convince people to believe unwelcome factual information and in some cases may make misperceptions worse. This finding and others like it do not mean that we should abandon coverage of misinformation altogether (particularly for specialized factcheckers like PolitiFact or Snopes), but it is important to be realistic about the limitations of journalism and the potential for creating further damage.

As a general posture, I’ve argued that the media should cover myths using approaches that do not encourage misperceptions and name and shame irresponsible elites. But that advice refers to myths that are already in widespread circulation beyond the fringe due to tacit or explicit endorsements from well-known figures. Within days of Sarah Palin’s post on Facebook in August 2009, for example, 86 percent of Americans reported having heard her false claims about a “death panel” in President Obama’s health care plan. If the Sandy Hook myth reaches that level of prominence, then the media should of course weigh in, but we’re not there yet—or even close.

Is it possible that debunking myths earlier in their life cycle will prevent them from spreading, as Seitz-Wald argues? Perhaps. Criticizing false claims might help to deter elites from endorsing them in future, for example.

But there are reasons for concern about making the problem worse. Early coverage of these myths could encourage elites to try to capitalize on them in order to attract media attention or support from credulous believers (as we saw with death panels). Broad coverage might also attract new adherents who would not otherwise have been exposed to or persuaded by false claims—a group that is not necessarily limited to people who are inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. In particular, even people who are not predisposed to believe in a false claim may be more likely to perceive a claim as true as it becomes more familiar.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that most conspiracy theories will wither and die if left alone. Extensive mainstream media coverage of fringe theories might therefore be counterproductive overall. Even if CNN’s Cooper prevents one obscure myth from spreading with his “Keeping Them Honest” features, for instance, he might expand the audience for five more.

A lurking danger here is that, as the audience for even many “mainstream” media outlets becomes politically polarized, news organizations face strong incentives to cover bogus claims more from the opposite fringe, which allows journalists to posture as truth-tellers while suggesting that the adversaries of their readers and viewers are extremists or cranks. Just as Fox promotes little-known left-wing groups like the New Black Panther Party, outlets with heavily Democratic audiences like CNN or Salon may increasingly flatter the prejudices of their readers or viewers with coverage of conspiracy theories circulating among fringe conservative groups. This freak show strategy could be profitable, but it might also provide oxygen to conspiracy theories that would otherwise fizzle. Don’t feed the trolls!

 

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.