crisis actor

The term crisis actor originated in the emergency preparedness community and originally referred to actors available for hire to participate in disaster and mass casualty drills as victims, witnesses, criminals, etc. Hiring trained actors is thought to increase the realism and effectiveness of such drills. But after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the term took a darker, conspiratorial turn.

The earliest citation for the phrase that I have found (I’m sure it can be antedated), is from the blog from 31 October 2012. This blog is no longer available on the internet for reasons that will become obvious. The blog post in question opens: 

Active Shooter Crisis Actors Target Mall Shootings via Visionbox

DENVER, CO, October 31, 2012 — A new group of actors is now available nationwide for active shooter drills and mall shooting full-scale exercises, announced Visionbox, Denver’s leading professional actors studio.

Visionbox Crisis Actors are trained in criminal and victim behavior, and bring intense realism to simulated mass casualty incidents in public places.

But after the 14 December 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which twenty children, aged six and seven, and six adult staff members were murdered, crisis actor took a sinister turn. Conspiracy theorists began claiming that the shooting was staged, and that the family members of the dead children who appeared on television advocating for gun control were actually crisis actors.

Use of this conspiratorial sense of crisis actor dates at least to 16 January 2013, a month after the shooting, when Gene Rosen, who lived near the school and had given aid to several students on the day of the shooting, was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor. He was being harassed by people who believed he was paid to give false accounts to the media:

“I don’t know what to do,” Rosen, a retired psychologist, told Salon. “I’m getting hang-up calls, I’m getting some calls, I’m getting e-mails with, not direct threats, but accusations that I’m lying, that I’m a crisis actor, ‘How much am I being paid?’”

So the history of crisis actor is that of twisting a term denoting a useful function, that of portraying people in disaster situations in order to train first responders, to one designating participants in a fictional conspiracy.

There is an older, unremarkable sense of crisis actor that is unrelated to the above. It comes from the world of political science, where it refers to a decision-maker in an international crisis. This sense dates to at least 1979 when it appears in a PhD dissertation which contends that one of the defining characteristics of a crisis is:

the recognition that the situational change which induces a crisis may originate in the internal as well as the external environment of the crisis actor.


Active Shooter Crisis Actors Target Mall Shootings via Visionbox.” 31 October 2012. Internet Archive.

Edwins, Laura. “Sandy Hook ‘Truthers’ Harass Newtown Man, Conspiracy Theories Go Viral.” Christian Science Monitor, 16 January 2013, 7.

Minix, Dean Alan. The Role of the Small Group in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: A Potential Pathology in Crisis Decisions? PhD dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 1979.

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