How a Crisis Actor Conspiracy Theory Rises in Times of Tragedy

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“I think this gives them a form of power,” he said of the people posting his photo, often under accounts intended to look as if they belong to news organizations. “Messing with somebody or making somebody feel bad, or saying that is just horrific that they’re so desensitized to, that gives them a feeling of belonging.”

But what happens next is the even more insidious danger, Ms. Phillips said: The joke is taken at face value by the sizable portion of people who are already primed to distrust society’s institutions.

“It just exacerbates all the conspiratorial stuff that we have swirling around and sets us on a dangerous course,” she said. “It further corrodes our ability to be grounded in the same empirical reality.”

Such pranks have a long historical precedent, researchers said. One man, a comedian, has been falsely named as the gunman in several mass killings, including a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

“I don’t think you can find an event of significant magnitude where this doesn’t happen in the aftermath — it’s almost a reflex at this point,” said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington. “Nowadays, people are promoting false-flag and crisis-actor theories 20 minutes after the event, and in very formulaic ways.”

Mr. Caulfield described the cycle as “almost factory production, happening like clockwork.”

In Mr. Jordan’s case, his photo resurfaces in social media posts from accounts that mimic news outlets and even copy their logos. A report last year that “Bernie” had been executed by Taliban soldiers in Kabul was posted on Twitter from @CNNAfghan, a fake account that Twitter suspended, and then amplified by @BBCAfghanNews, another suspended account, which cited “multiple reports” of the death.

“Bernie” has also been described as a victim of a tornado in Kentucky in 2021 and an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2020. @FoxNewsUkraine, a fake account with 17 followers that has also been suspended, claimed this year that he was “a right-wing journalist” who had been killed in Mariupol, while @RussiaCnn, which has two followers, said he was a pilot who had been shot down while flying toward Russia.

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