In Depth

What are ‘false flags’ and ‘crisis actors’?

Conspiracy theories abound about 9/11, Sandy Hook and the 2005 London bombings

Conspiracy theories have long captured the imaginations of people sceptical of the authorities, and in this age of terrorism, few more so than claims about so-called false flag attacks.

 False flag theorists believe that “powerful forces routinely arrange massacres or terrorist atrocities, and make it appear as if some other individual or group did them”, in order to achieve “sinister political goals”, says The Guardian.

Alleged victims or witnesses are purported to be “crisis actors”, trained and paid to “pose as survivors of various newsworthy massacres to advance a political agenda”, says Vox

In the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Dan Bidondi, a radio host on right-wing conspiracy network InfoWars, suggested that the atrocity was in fact “ a staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security”, The Atlantic reports.

Many theorists also believe that America’s gun violence crisis has been manufactured in order to promote stricter gun control laws and disarm the populace, paving the way for government tyranny. 

Here are other notable tragedies dubbed false flag attacks:

9/11

The 9/11 attacks have become a favourite topic for conspiracy theorists, many of whom assert that the coordinated plane hijackings that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people were not orchestrated by the al-Qa’eda terrorist network.

So-called truthers believe that the attacks were actually planned by the Bush administration, or some other state actor, “to provide a basis for war in the Middle East”, The Guardian says.

Sandy Hook shooting

US radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones popularised the theory that no one really died at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newton, Connecticut, on 14 December 2012. Jones claims that the 20 students and six staff members shot dead by 20-year-old Adam Lanza “were acting for the cameras”, The Guardian reports, and that “parents had faked their own childrens’ deaths”.

7/7

On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers detonated four explosive devices in the English capital - three on the London Underground and one on a double-decker bus, killing a total of 52 people and injuring hundreds more.

Theorists have claimed that the bombs that went off on the Tube trains “were actually under the floors of the vehicles and not in the alleged plotters’ backpacks”, The Daily Telegraph reports.

In an interview on US radio programme This American Life, survivor Rachel North said she had been harassed by online trolls who posted comments calling her a liar on her blog about the tragedy.

Parkland shooting

The 14 February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead has fuelled calls for tighter gun control laws in the US. But theorists have seized upon this to claim student survivors of the shooting are actually crisis actors.

Rubbishing the allegations, Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of fact-checking website Snopes.com, told CNN: “These mass shootings - who would fake these? You can’t fake these horrible situations. I’ve covered their aftermaths myself and you cannot fake the smell of blood nor the way phones ring and ring and ring as people desperately try to talk to their loved ones, one last time.”

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