As a reporter covering conservative politics, misinformation and conspiracy theories, I’m used to upsetting readers. Angry tweets and comments questioning my motives and talent are pretty standard, especially when I’m disputing a popular conspiracy theory.
Reader response to my coverage of Arvada shooting good Samaritan Johnny Hurley’s “foundational” ties to We Are Change, however, was different. It was personal–friends of Mr. Hurley wrote lengthy emails to me, praising his character and accusing me of “smearing” him for clicks or to further a political agenda. After sending a version of the following paragraphs as an email reply for the third time, I decided to publish it.
I struggled with how to report this story for exactly the reasons raised by many readers. I didn’t want to appear insensitive to the fact that a man lost his life while taking a huge personal risk to protect others, which, at least according to all the publicly available information we have so far, is what happened.
That said, I did think it was important to clarify just what kind of group We Are Change Colorado is–a conspiracy group that promotes provably false disinformation and far-right propaganda. Conspiracies such as these have led to actual violence–the most obvious example of which is the storming of our nation’s Capitol on Jan 6.
I first reported on We Are Change Colorado last summer, when the group hosted a July 4th festival in Denver’s Civic Center Park with the theme of opposing Colorado’s COVID public health restrictions.
The falsehoods the group pushes, that 9-11 was a U.S. government-planned attack, that COVID vaccines are more dangerous than the coronavirus, that voting isn’t worth the effort, even that fluoridated water is a government plot to control people-–these are false and dangerous and have real-world consequences–-whether that is fewer Americans getting vaccinated because they’ve heard so much false information about the vaccine, or the thousands of extremists who, falsely believing the election to have been stolen thanks to conspiracists like WAC, broke into Congress chanting “Hang Mike Pence” hoping to overturn our democratic process.
I cite and link to my sources or post original documents, such as WAC’s Facebook post promoting the conspiracy that the 2012 Aurora theatre shooting was a false flag operation, in the article itself. If you believe that my describing anti-vaxx or “election fraud” conspiracy theories as such is opinion rather than fact, we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
WAC Colorado pushes false information and wild conspiracy theories like these and others to convince people to give money to its “investigations.” The group exists to make money for Luke Rudowski by scaring and scamming people. There are no fewer than eight different QR code donation methods on the WAC homepage, which currently features a picture of Mr. Hurley in his WAC Colorado shirt.
I want to make clear that I don’t think Mr. Hurley took the action that he did because of whatever beliefs he may have held through his involvement with WAC. The police say he was a good Samaritan and a hero and I led with that in my headline and first paragraph. Most of the other news reports, if they referred to WAC at all, called it a “community group,” and made no mention of the conspiracies and disinformation that comprise the group’s central purpose.
Those who reached out to me may have known Mr. Hurley well, but maybe weren’t as familiar with We Are Change. The group has been very successful at softening its extreme conspiracist beliefs for much of its public organizing activity, such as local concerts, while aggressively pushing disinformation and debunked conspiracy theories online. That’s exactly the same model that QAnon used with its “Save The Children” campaign of in-person rallies that led to well-meaning people clogging human trafficking hotlines with false alarms about kids wearing masks being kidnap victims.
Conspiracy theories are great fodder for podcasts and video games and X-Files reruns, but we no longer have the luxury of ignoring the fact that they’re not only being monetized outside of the entertainment realm but weaponized for political ends as well. The content pushed by groups like We Are Change is convincing real people to take real action in the real world, and more and more often that action has consequences.
None of this means Mr. Hurley’s personal actions on June 21 and the consequences thereof aren’t both heroic and tragic–they are and he should be honored for them.
I’d like to thank everyone who reached out. I really appreciate readers taking the time even when–especially when–they disagree with me.