Does the Media Encourage Conspiracy Theories by Reporting on Them?

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It didn’t take long at all. On the evening of April 15, following the bombs at the Boston Marathon, a seemingly unhinged man injected himself into the Boston Police Department's press conference. “Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off?” he rambled. “Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?”

“No. Next question,” said Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick flatly, but it was already too late. Conspiracy theories blaming government shadow groups were already blooming in dark corners online, but by penetrating television news, the peddlers had made themselves the story, and thus welcomed more traditional media into their ugly but endlessly fascinating rabbit hole. And, of course, journalists welcomed the invitation.

“We were glued to social media and it was hard to miss the crazy conspiracy theorists,” said Gabriel Snyder, editor of the Atlantic Wire, of the hours after the bombing. “We made a decision early on that day that there was no sense in just reaching down into the random comment threads of YouTube or the Twitter search for ‘inside job’ and presenting that. It simply didn't matter at that point. But if it crossed over to legitimate conversation — a person of some note or an outlet with some legitimacy making those arguments, then it was a newsworthy topic, especially to clearly refute it.”

That moment, for Snyder, came at the press conference, from a soldier of Info Wars, the conspiracy hub of radio host and web proprietor Alex Jones. “What was stunning was the speed with which they were up and running on it,” said Mark Fenster, a professor of law at the University of Florida and the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. “Alex Jones has established for himself something of an infrastructure. He’s very media savvy. And within the strange world of the conspiracy theories he's not completely inarticulate. He becomes a go-to for whatever it is that comes up.”

The question, then, is how legitimate journalists should handle the inevitable: Ignore the inanity and hope it goes away? Take the time to debunk theories that have no basis in reality? Or simply shine a light at it and expect readers to see the blemishes themselves? “It is so well known that it is part of the process in any traumatic event,” said Fenster. “There's this ritual quality to the whole enterprise.” And it is an enterprise, with readers at stake, as websites struggle for unique angles on the only story anyone wants to read about.

Each option carries risks, like the potential for a theory to explode from the underworld into the mainstream without the media. “You have to engage. You don't get points for pretending stuff doesn’t exist,” said Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith, recalling the birther conspiracy that followed Barack Obama beginning in the 2008 Democratic primary. “There was certainly a sense in the media that you didn't want to air them on a bigger platform. But they spread almost universally. The media did a disservice by not covering them for as long as they did.”

On the afternoon of the attack, Buzzfeed published “13 People Who Already Think That The U.S. Government Was Responsible For The Boston Marathon Explosion,” and as the explanations expanded, followed up a week later with “6 Mind-Blowingly Ridiculous Conspiracy Theories Surrounding The Boston Bombing.” Together the posts collected more than 320,000 total views, indicating that if the ideas, however crazy, spread well on their own, they will also be shared — by haters and proponents — when compiled by a news organization.

 “In big stories where crazy lies go very, very viral and spread far, the notion that you can protect your readers from ever seeing them by ignoring them wildly overstates your power,” Smith argued. “You have to engage these things and not think you can control what people read.”

There’s also the instinct to point and laugh. “In some cases you're covering things because they're interesting rather than for sort of didactic purposes,” Smith added. “There are times when you want to engage and refute things, but you don't always want to argue with crazy people.”

While it can be fun to gawk at treatises about lizard people, the Illuminati, or the moon landing, when horrible deaths are involved, it sucks the fun out of online tourism to worlds of blatant idiocy. In the case of Boston, the theories run the gamut, from the #freejahar movement, which believes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was set up, to the Info Wars–based belief that the attack was orchestrated by the Obama administration to push martial law across America. One blogger implicated “Halliburton executives, suspected CIA assets, Chechnyan crime bosses, oligarchs stealing billions from banks and laundering money with seeming impunity, fire-eaters, peacock-feathered stilt-walkers, and a girl swinging on a trapeze pouring vodka into ice sculptures shaped like naked male and female torsos.” And yet beyond the absurdity, a YouTube video called “PROOF! Boston Marathon Bombing is Staged Terror Attack” has 2.5 million views.

The story took on a meta angle when it turned out that bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was himself a 9/11 truther and fan of Info Wars, as reported by the AP.  “I've seen this before,” Jones told Buzzfeed. "The federal government trying to connect me to tragedies. That's the media and the government's own conspiracy theories.”

“It seems to be a part of American populist politics: questioning concentrations of power in the state and private corporate interest,” said Fenster. “One of the things that's changed is the speed with which conspiracy theories can be circulated. With JFK you were dependent on word of mouth and paper. Now people can find each other and trade information and stories and theories.” It’s not surprising for websites to capitalize on that instinct by getting in on the action, either by simply cataloging what people are saying or shooting down their cause.

With the killings in Aurora and at Sandy Hook Elementary School, theorists were convinced the deaths were staged to spur gun control. “What propels these conspiracy theories are ideologies and worldviews that are independent of the event,” said Snyder. “If you're merely going to repeat verbatim the claims of people you don't think have a legitimate place in the debate, then I think you've in a sense given over that space. If you make an effort to explain, you've taken control of that conversation. Having a working knowledge of the so-called facts that truthers embrace is a way to counteract the spread of their fears.”

It’s a noble cause — to inform and debunk — but it’s also a win-win for blogs, which can use the salacious and unsavory bits to draw eyeballs, while at the same time condemning their existence, like posting a bikini photo of a starlet only to argue for her right to privacy. In the Internet’s outrage cycle, the relationship between parties is symbiotic.

“More attention is just what Alex Jones wants,” Fenster said. “What is the media's responsibility? To the extent that the media itself wants to drive high traffic, articles about conspiracy are more likely to be on Facebook and e-mailed around and get traffic — look at these wackos,” he said. “Alex Jones needs the mainstream media to cover these issues. Does the media also need Alex Jones? Are we all not complicit?”

“Context is everything, particularly for conspiracy theories,” said Spencer Ackerman, whose Danger Room blog at Wired has a feature called “Tinfoil Tuesday,” a “sporadic venture into the delectable lunacy of online conspiracy theories,” and has covered the Boston paranoids in depth. “Unless you write about them either approvingly or super-earnestly, readers understand them for what they are,” he continued. “When in doubt, link minimally and describe delicately.”