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04/16/2013

After Boston: Why we shouldn't jump on the online conspiracy bandwagon

Snopes is already beginning to track conspiracy theories after the atrocious bombings at the Boston Marathon yesterday.

The long-standing site, which debunks urban myths with clever research, is collecting online stories that have begun circulating, with all the usual rumours. For example: victims pictured were actually actors or other ‘plants’. A Sandy Hook child was killed in the blast. The whole thing was a false flag operation.

This all happened after Sandy Hook, too. Otherwise sensible Facebook friends were circulating a video ‘expose’ arguing that Sandy Hook wasn’t all it seemed. The facts just didn’t add up, the video said. There was some underlying truth that wasn’t getting out.

The driving message behind all these videos is that there’s a cover-up, by powers unseen, and for reasons unknown. Or worse, that the whole tragedy was a staged event.

It doesn’t take long for people to start making up stories after a tragedy takes place, in the hopes of exacerbating the drama. But why?

The conspiracy theories are the product of paranoia and distrust. People are understandably fed up with inept politicians who can’t even agree on basic budgetary principles. They are disengaged from a political system that is fraught with problems and swayed by corporate interests. But instead of trying to engage that system constructively and create positive change from the bottom up, They start making up damaging, misleading stories like these.

God knows, don’t we have enough drama already?

The Internet is an amazing place, which helps us to learn, and to organise. It is also a place for kooks and tin foil hat-wearing whackjobs.

What irritates me most about this stuff is that people pass it off as journalism. They say that they’re battling to find a truth that ‘big media’ is too corrupt and lazy to identify.

But real journalists approach a subject with an open mind and ask open-ended questions. They won't shy away from asking questions that need to be asked. But they don't cross the line from a healthy scepticism into blinkered, useless cynicism.

Sometimes, real journalists uncover conspiracies. But when they do surface, it's as a result of rigorous investigation, informed by ethical guidelines. Real journalists find the truth by looking at every piece of evidence and questioning inconsistencies.

In many cases, those inconsistencies have perfectly reasonable explanations. But conspiracy theorists approach a subject with their minds already made up. They look for a single answer in every question that they ask, and ignore everything else. They selectively gaze only at 'facts' that support an existing point of view.

This is not truth seeking. It is irresponsible and unfounded gossip. What makes it particularly odious is that they’re playing with real human feelings.

These tragedies rip families apart. They scar all of us, at a visceral level. We need healing, rather than people fanning the flames with their own paranoioa and lazy fear-mongering.

We desparately need sites like Snopes to nip this idiocy in the bud. So if when someone sends you the inevitable ‘grassroots’ conspiracy theory video about Boston, be the person with whom the buck stops. Send them - and everyone they CCd on their email - to Snopes. And if you’re the one tempted to send the video, from some misguided sense of anti-governmental political ‘justice’, please don’t. Drag it to the trash can, goddammit, and do something positive instead. Start by reading a book about how the professionals do it: Diligently. Dauntlessly. And with dignity. 

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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