Suspension of Belief

“Crisis actor” conspiracy theories relieve the cognitive dissonance of not knowing how to respond

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In the wake of the Russian shelling of a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, images by AP photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and AP video journalist Mstyslav Chernov began circulating, cataloging the destruction. They depicted, among other things, pregnant women, bloodied and wounded — one staggering out, one carried out on a stretcher. Almost immediately, Russian propaganda began disputing the reality of the images. The Twitter account for Russia’s London Embassy claimed that they had been faked entirely — that the maternity hospital had been previously emptied and was in use by the Ukrainian military, and thus a legitimate target; and that the two women in the AP’s photos were in fact the same woman, a beauty Instagrammer, unharmed and in make-up for staged photographs.

While this move was quickly debunked and denounced (leading ultimately to Twitter deleting the Embassy’s tweets), it gained enough traction that the AP ultimately asked Maloletka and Chernov, besieged and under threat in a dying city, to go back and find out what had happened to the women, to further prove their existence. (The woman on the stretcher could not be identified, but both she and her baby had died following the attack.) More recently, Russia has continued this line of denial in the wake of evidence of war crimes in Bucha, with the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claiming, without evidence or elaboration,  that “experts at the Ministry of Defence have identified signs of video fakes and various fakes.”

Despite the seeming obviousness of such lies, Russia deploys them because, in part, they work: The lies surrounding the maternity hospital were picked up by a confluence of far-right and far-left American commentators, including the American Conservative senior editor and columnist Rod Dreher, who, in a series of “just asking questions” tweets, helped push the Russian Federation’s story that the women had not been casualties of the attack but were in fact “crisis actors” — a long-standing motif in American conspiracy theories.

The true purpose of the notion of the crisis actor is reassurance: If these images are faked, you need not respond to them

The origin of the term “Crisis Actor” is innocuous enough, originally meaning people hired to roleplay disaster victims to help train emergency response personnel. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, however, the term was adopted by conspiracy theorists — most notably ex-Florida Atlantic University professor James F. Tracy, retired University of Minnesota Duluth professor James H. Fetzer, and Alex Jones — to suggest that the television footage of victims and their loved ones from real disasters were acting. Tracy, Fetzer, and Jones have all alleged that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School never took place and that victims and grieving relatives seen on television were paid actors who’ve appeared at other mass tragedies.

Since Sandy Hook, the accusation of crisis actors has increasingly become a commonplace reaction to discomfiting news; it was deployed against the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shootings in 2018, and against Henry Dyne, a 29-year-old man in England who contracted Covid-19 in the summer of 2021 and spoke to the BBC from his hospital bed that July. Dyne was subsequently inundated with hundreds of comments on social media accusing him of getting paid by journalists to fake his illness, driven in no small part by Welsh politician Richard Taylor, who accused Dyne of being a crisis actor.

The notion of a crisis actor proposes something horrifying — that everything you see on the news is fake, that nothing is real, that you can’t trust anything, that even photographs and television footage are lying to you. But its true purpose is reassurance: If these images are faked, you need not respond to them. You can believe anything you want; there is nothing in what you’re seeing that should force any kind of introspection or change in attitude. It advocates the belief that, in the supposed last words of Hassan-i Sabbah (later popularized by William Burroughs), “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

The Crisis Actor, in conspiracy lore, is itself an evolution of the “false flag” accusation: that world events and violence are enacted by secret state actors or conspirators to gin up public outrage and mobilize sentiments for war. False flag operations have a historical pedigree, and, according to the laws of war, are technically legal (it is permissible to fly neutral or false flags before opening hostilities, so long as your true colors are shown once the fighting starts). But while there are a multitude of documented instances of such covert actions among propagandists and fifth columnists, the term has been increasingly applied by conspiracists to anything shocking enough to trigger a widespread cultural response. Tracy, Jones and Fetzer, to name just a few, all advocated false flag conspiracies long before Sandy Hook, including various allegations surrounding the attacks of September 11, 2001 (and, in Tracy’s case, the Boston Bombings of 2013).

Questioning the reality of these images seems motivated by a wish to not be compelled to an unwanted action

 Most 9/11 Truthers admit that the events of that day took place (the World Trade Center buildings were destroyed); what they allege is that the official story is false. The “crisis actor” narrative, meanwhile, is a specific adaptation for the media age, alleging not just fifth columnists or governmental sabotage, but that television footage and photojournalism itself cannot be trusted. Rather than just deny the official reasons and causes of the images in question, they deny the content of the images themselves.

Crisis Actor conspiracy theories play off of our sense of helplessness in the presence of an unmediated flow of imagery. (Their true antecedent is in the Moon Landing conspiracy theories, which, as scholar Jason Brown explained to me over email, were a response to “the first truly global event that almost everyone saw only through television.”) These theories recognize and capitulate to the power of the news image, while trying to reassert some kind of mastery over it in the form of ironic, media-savvy distance. It’s not entirely a coincidence that their most vocal proponents include academics and intellectuals, including Tracy (a formerly tenured Communications PhD) and Fetzer (an emeritus philosophy of science professor).

The Crisis Actor narrative is basically an extreme version of the hermeneutic approach to media — the belief that there must be something going on beneath the surface of media we consume every day that can be read and deciphered. Reducing actual human suffering to pure, disembodied data, such conspiracy theorists convert news images into text and translate them freely. Their allegations work through a hyperactive form of apophenia, a frenzied and maniacal attempt to make connections between events where none exist, scrutinizing freeze frames in an attempt to find correlations and similarities. Such behavior did not begin with the internet, but as M. R. Sauter has explained, the internet is an “apophenic machine.” The currency on social media and on Reddit forums is in sifting through the endless morass of noise in search of signal.

It’s not surprising that the Russian Embassy would claim that two photographs of two obviously different women were the same person acting in makeup; for years, school shooting truthers have relied heavily on false accusations that the same people were showing up on the news at different tragic events (James Fetzer at one point claimed that the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting could later be seen singing “America the Beautiful” with Jennifer Hudson at the 2013 Superbowl). Just as gun rights advocates need to downplay and explain away school shootings, so too do Russian and pro-Russian propagandists want to downplay the reality of these images — not only to encourage inaction and apathy, but to obliterate the conditions under which any dispassionate observer may make conclusions based on what they’re seeing.

The evolution of the Crisis Actor narrative from school shootings to armed conflict feels, in retrospect, inevitable. Ever since real-time photojournalism of the atrocities of war became a regular feature of the modern world, the question of what to do about such evidence has been posed consistently, both from the perspective of the powers waging war and the news consumers who are asked to witness such atrocities. This fundamental question is what drives Virginia Woolf’s 1938 anti-war polemic, Three Guineas, which revolves around an image — never reproduced in the text — from a news story on the Spanish Civil War.

“They are not pleasant photographs to look upon,” she writes of “this morning’s collection” of war photographs, before singling out the image “of what could be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig.” Woolf sets up the image of a body so destroyed by war that it is sexless as a counterpart to the rigid gender distinction that drives the opening of Three Guineas: for Woolf, men engage in war and women do not. Because women do not engage in war, they do not share the reasons, beliefs, or passions that men hold towards it. There is, she suggests, an unbridgeable divide between the sexes on the question of armed conflict.

Propagandists want to downplay the reality of these images to obliterate the conditions under which any dispassionate observer may make conclusions based on what they’re seeing

But, she goes on to argue, what we do share is photography — specifically our reaction to photographs of armed conflict, which, she claims, “are not arguments addressed to the reason; they are simply statements of fact addressed to the eye.” The stubborn, undeniable reality of the photograph, for Woolf, transcends the gendered division in how we respond to war. “When we look at those photographs, some fusion takes place within us,” she claims; “however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same, and they are violent. You, Sir, call them ‘horror and disgust.’ We also call them horror and disgust. And the same words rise to our lips. War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped. For now at last we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses.”

For Woolf, the mere fact of the war photograph, the brute statement of fact addressed to the eye, demands action. Discussing various pacifist responses — signing a petition, joining an antiwar society, or donating money — she worries that such actions, easy enough on their own, nonetheless are insufficient, for “the emotion caused by the photographs would still remain unappeased.” The only possible response to such an image of civilian suffering is to end all war, immediately.

In the decades since, those of us who’ve seen the rise of women like Margaret Thatcher, Condoleeza Rice, and Madeleine Albright no longer share Woolf’s naivete about women and war. Nor do we necessarily share her belief that everyone will have the same innate reaction to an image of war. Is it true, Susan Sontag asks in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, “that these photographs, documenting the slaughter of noncombatants rather than the clash of armies, could only stimulate the repudiation of war?” Sontag is writing during an age when images of dead Palestinian and Israeli civilians were a constant facet of the media landscape, and noting the obvious fact that such images have served, overwhelmingly, to bolster viewers’ preconceived opinions about that conflict instead of ending the conflict once and for all.

Sontag’s book opens with a direct critique of Three Guineas, arguing that, while a photograph of mutilated civilians might support one’s case that all war should be stopped, it could as easily accompany the question of how we can “best contribute to the defense of the Spanish Republic against the forces of militarist and clerical fascism.” We bring our perspective and our sensibilities to such images; conflict photography, more than anything else, works overwhelmingly to support one’s previously held convictions. “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted,” Sontag argues, “when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”

Pressed as to why he was echoing Russian propaganda, Dreher fretted openly about “being baited into being drawn into World War III on behalf of the Ukrainians,” a concern shared by fringe-left anti-war commentators such as Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey. Questioning the reality of these images from Mariupol seems motivated, more than anything else, by a wish to not be compelled to an unwanted action. Far better to treat these photographs as invented spectacle, designed for consumption by Americans — such theories are an invitation to desensitization, an excuse to remain unmoved by the reality before you.

This too, while an extreme reaction, isn’t much more than an exaggeration of a far more common response to such images — a detached viewership that treats foreign conflict as a kind of removed spectacle, not involving actual human lives. It is the attitude of pundits who game out the political ramifications of intervention, of Americans who watch the unfolding atrocities as merely the opening acts of some Hollywood version of war in which plucky freedom fighters will ultimately triumph over evil. This desire to transform reality into spectacle relies on what Sontag denounced as a kind of “breathtaking provincialism.” Such a move, she argues, “universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment…. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world.”

The bare minimum, it would seem, would be to forcefully reject such provincialism. For all of Woolf’s seeming naivete about the power of the photograph to erase all political differences, I do think that she’s right that the war photograph invokes an emotion that demands “appeasement.” To look at the body of a wounded, maimed, or killed civilian is to be overcome with some kind of emotional response — which may take for the form of pity, or horror, or grim resolve, or indignant belligerence. But while such images demand action, they can never dictate a course of action; one must bring that to the photograph oneself.

As one who has no foreign policy training, and who finds the idea of armed conflict with a nuclear-armed state as unthinkable as allowing the atrocities in Ukraine to continue, I am wary of assuming I know the right course of action here. And when one does not already know what to do, the photograph then presents an open space of unknowing, reflecting back on to viewer their own lack of clarity. The photograph opens an epistemic wound that echoes whatever physical wounding is displayed.

At least part of the explanation and appeal of Crisis Actor conspiracy theories, then, lies in the fact of intolerance for ambiguity. To approach a photograph of human suffering and not respond with an opinion as to the correct course of action is to exist in a space of unsettled unknowing. It is to confront one’s own helplessness and lack of expertise, to confront the global landscape of conflict as one of entangled and labyrinthine choices, none easy or clear.

Colin Dickey is the author of, most recently, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and the forthcoming The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained.