The Grammarphobia Blog

Backstage with ‘crisis actors’

Q: Thanks for answering my question about “false flag.” Now, who came up with the term “crisis actor”? I can’t believe what’s happening to the English language. This whole country has gone crazy. It makes you want to pull out your brain and give it a good shake.

A: Now that you’ve vented, let’s take a look at “crisis actor,” a relatively new term that’s being used to question the legitimacy of victims or survivors of mass shootings.

When the phrase first appeared in print 50 years ago, “crisis actor” was a term in political science that referred to a country in conflict.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association Second Conference: Poverty, Development and Peace (1968):

“McClelland argues that performance characteristics of crisis actors, both in crisis and non-crisis behavior, can be identified, and that phase characteristics of particular crises and of crises in general as one type of international behavior, can be distinguished.”

The reference is to a 1965 paper (“Systems Theory and Human Conflict”) by the political scientist Charles A. McClelland. Though he refers to countries in conflict as “actors” in “crisis,” he doesn’t actually use the phrase “crisis actor” or “crisis actors.”

The phrase took on a new sense a few months after the July 20, 2012, mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, CO.

On Oct. 31, 2012, Visionbox, a nonprofit acting group in Denver, issued a press release announcing that it was offering actors to help shopping malls prepare for dealing with the victims of mass shootings:

“Visionbox Crisis Actors are trained in criminal and victim behavior, and bring intense realism to simulated mass casualty incidents in public places,” the press release says.

The release adds that the actors can “help first responders visualize life-saving procedures, and assist trainers in delivering superior hands-on crisis response training.”

However, the phrase was soon co-opted by people who questioned the official version of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for the new usage is in a Dec. 25, 2012, article on the Washington Examiner website that includes a “partial list of interesting questions being raised all over the internet” about Sandy Hook, including this one:

“Was the school part of the shooting spree an emergency response exercise using paid crisis actors funded by a grant from our federal government?” The article has a link to the Visionbox press release.

The now-deleted article, by Lori Stacey, was captured on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer.

“That tenuous chain of reasoning was enough for conspiracy theorists to begin imagining that Newtown was a staged event populated with ‘crisis actors,’ ” Zimmer wrote in a March 2, 2018, article in the Wall St. Journal.

Days before the Washington Examiner piece appeared, people were raising questions online about Sandy Hook, as Jason Koebler points out in a Feb. 22, 2018, article on the Motherboard website.

For example, James Tracy, a professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, suggested in a Dec. 20, 2012, post on his Memory Hole Blog that the official Sandy Hook account was a “meticulously crafted façade” with a “made-for-television storyline.”

Tracy, who was later fired by the university, didn’t use the phrase “crisis actor” in that post but a Dec. 22 comment to it used the term “actors” in suggesting that the mass shooting was staged by broadcasting “gunshots and mayhem over the intercom system.”

The commenter, using the handle “andrew.w,” says such a broadcast “adds a bit of zing to what is essentially a drill and allows the actors and children to actually relate what they heard and did with a bit more reality.”

Enough. We’d better stop here or we’ll have to pull out our brains and give them a good shake.

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