At the April 15, 2013, press briefing about the Boston Marathon bombing, Governor Deval Patrick was asked the first question by a reporter for the alternative news website Alex Jones’ Infowars: “Why were the loudspeakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? 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,” Patrick responded. Later, the same reporter tried to ask another similar question, and Governor Patrick ended the press conference.
The first question happened so quickly that most viewers of the nationally-televised press conference seemed to have missed both question and response. And most who heard the question very likely did not know what it meant to have a “false flag attack“ (here, it meant that the Boston bombing was the work of the government, intended to result in taking weapons from Americans.)
But untold thousands of conspiracy-theory believers quickly jumped to attention when Alex Jones—the fellow who most recently introduced himself to the mainstream by becoming unhinged on Piers Morgan’s show over his petition to have Morgan deported for supporting gun control—interviewed his reporter, Dan Bidondi, who had disrupted the Patrick press conference.
Conspiracy-theory believers are now focusing on the Boston Marathon bombing, just as they did with the Sandy Hook killings of children and their teachers, by rejecting official information about the events. The increasing Internet prominence of people who reject “official” accounts of such events again raises questions: Who are these people? What are they doing? And why are they doing it?
The Emerging Alternative Explanations of the Boston Marathon Bombing
The Guardian (of London) assembled a jaw-dropping list of the leading explanations being offered by conspiracy theorists for the Boston Marathon bombing. The list is dominated by anti-government theories, including the alleged false flag attack, and claims that the organizers of the Boston Marathon knew in advance of the bombings, and that the police in fact arrested both Tsarnaev brothers alive, then killed the older brother. Let’s briefly examine the leading theories:
False Flag Attack: Alex Jones’s Infowars’ “false flag attack” took the lead on this claim, which was quickly endorsed and embraced by New Hampshire Republican state legislator Stella Tremblay, who offered her considered opinion that the bombing was a U.S. Government “black ops” undertaking. Ms. Tremblay has refused to back off when pressed. Please note: Ms. Tremblay also claims that President Woodrow Wilson supported Adolph Hitler, notwithstanding the fact Wilson died in 1921, long before Hitler publicly surfaced in Germany.
Organizers Knew: Based on reports that bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled both the start and finish lines of the Boston Marathon, as well as reports of police spotters on rooftops along the marathon route, conspiracy theorists have concluded that the Marathon organizers knew that bombs had been planted, yet let the race proceed. This is a modified “The government did it” theory. Of course, it ignores the question of why the government would bother with the dogs and spotters if they knew in advance that the bombings would occur? Apparently the theorists are claiming the dogs and spotters were a ruse.
Sighting of Naked Man Shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev Alive: Grainy video is good enough for Tamerlan’s mother to recognize that her older son was not killed as reported by police, but rather was stripped naked and taken into custody before being killed. Those who believe the observation of this woman—Zubeidat Tsarnaeva—ignore the fact that she too is on the U.S. list of potential terrorists and insists, notwithstanding the evidence that is already publicly available, that her sons are innocent.
As is usual with conspiracy theories, these defy logic. Other theories noted by the Guardian include claims that the two young Saudis incorrectly identified by the New York Post as being involved in the Marathon bombing were exonerated by the intervention of no less than Michelle Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, but in fact the two Saudis were involved.
Other conspiracy theories claim that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was actually an FBI informant (whatever that means); that the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers was a CIA operative (similarly of unclear meaning); that the Boston Globe tweeted the event before it happened; and that military contractors were at the scene, and therefore responsible for the bombing. All this, of course, is patent nonsense.
Are People Who Believe These Theories Fools, or Stupid, or Both?
Conspiracy-theory thinking has had varying degrees of prominence throughout history. Broadly defined a conspiracy theory is “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.”
A recent poll shows, for example, that “37% of voters believe global warming is a hoax, 51% do not. Republicans say global warming is a hoax by a 58-25 margin, Democrats disagree 11-77.” And “51% of voters say a larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination, just 25% say Oswald acted alone.” The poll noted that “28% of voters believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.”
It was inevitable that the Boston Marathon bombing would generate its own conspiracy theories. This phenomenon prompted Salon to ask an expert who has studied the conspiracy thinking relating to those who believe that climate change is a hoax: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? The answer seems to boil down to the fact that adopting such a theory gives the adopter a feeling of control over his or her life, notwithstanding the fact that it means abandoning evidence-based thinking. Salon’s expert notes that such thinking is found on both the political right and left, and that these people are neither fools nor stupid.
I would argue that with regard to government-related matters, and particularly those relating to trust in government—as noted by many who have looked—conspiracy theories are today far more ascendant on the right. In fact, they dominate much of right- wing thinking. Also, I would argue that while otherwise intelligent people might subscribe to a conspiracy theory, to do so, by definition is an abandonment of critical thinking. Contrary evidence is rejected, or explained away, by the conspiracy theorists. While they may not be fools, in allowing their beliefs to trump critical thinking they are being foolhardy, and anything but smart or even rational.
However, it is not the believers—those who often unthinkingly embrace any given conspiracy theory—but rather those who knowingly construct and concoct these theories whom I find disturbing. The line between the “motivated thinking“ necessary to promote a conspiracy theory and the intentional perversion of the truth better known as “fraud” can be very, very thin. Academics who study conspiracy theories describe those who promote them as conspiracy-theory entrepreneurs. Actually, “con artists” strikes me as more descriptive, but I will go with the neutral term.
Conspiracy Theory Entrepreneurs: At What Costs?
There is surprisingly little serious study of conspiracy-theory subscribers and promoters. For anyone who is interested, I would recommend “Conspiracy Theories,” the relatively recent work of Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, two Harvard Law professors who reviewed and plumbed the existing literature to understand and address the conspiracy theories, particularly those claiming 9/11 was not the work of terrorists, but rather that of the United States and/or Israeli governments. Sunstein and Vermeule’s findings are applicable to the emerging conspiracy theories relating to the Boston Marathon.
Early in their report, Sunstein and Vermeule note, “Of course it is necessary to specify how, exactly, conspiracy theories begin. Some such theories seem to bubble up spontaneously, appearing roughly simultaneously in many different social networks; others are initiated and spread, quite intentionally, by conspiracy entrepreneurs who profit directly or indirectly from propagating their theories.” (Emphasis in original.)
Clearly, the Boston Marathon conspiracies are the work of conspiracy entrepreneurs like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, who often lead the pack in pursuing national traumas like vultures or jackals. Both men have made an industry of producing conspiracy theories. Both are still spinning theories on the Sandy Hook killings of children and teachers. Both are adept at melding fact and fiction while pretending to be critical thinkers who are merely offering infotainment. The question is whether they—and like conspiracy theorists—are merely entertainers or potentially dangerous demagogues? Their success shows they have found a sizeable audience, implying that they do have power of a sort.
Sunstein and Vermeule conclude, without getting into specifics, that “[s]ome conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence.” Indeed, the “false flag attack” claims being promoted by conspiracy entrepreneurs who are twisting the facts of the Boston Marathon bombing strike me as potentially of the ilk that could provoke violence. But I doubt that any single conspiracy entrepreneur, or even a collection of them, is a great danger. Rather, it is their collective impact that poses the greater problem. It is difficult not to believe that we are paying a price for all these anti-government conspiracy theories.
For example, although I have been unable to find a statistical or academic study confirming my observation, I am struck by the fact that as conspiracy theories have become more prevalent, public trust in government has fallen. Or is it vice-versa, so that as trust in government has fallen, conspiracy theories have become more prevalent? Given that virtually all the prevalent conspiracy theories in the United States relate to government, this is must be having an impact on government.
A Pew poll tracking trust in government shows that it has fallen from 73-76 percent in the early 1960s, to approximately 26 percent today. Is the growing lack of trust related to the growth in the belief in conspiracy theories? I do not know the answer, but it is not an unreasonable question to ask.
Despite some searching, I have found no poll tracking the belief in conspiracy theories over time by Americans. However, a search of The New York Times from 1875 to 1960 produces 30 instances in which the phrase “conspiracy theory” arises, but the phrase typically refers to a theory in a criminal-conspiracy situation. If The New York Times is any indicator, conspiracy theories became a public matter in the United States following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1964, yet as the Pew poll shows, just about the same time in history, trust in government began to tank.
Trust in government is essential to democracy. Sunstein and Vermeule also concluded that conspiracy theories are, in fact, something that government itself should be concerned about. Conspiracy theories should also be of greater concern to social science, especially in light of the paucity of social scientific interest in this important area thus far.
Meanwhile, please see these “conspiracy entrepreneurs” for what they are: Those seeking profit by distorting the reality of the tragedy of others. In fact, they really are con artists, and should be so viewed.