Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Editor of the Jewish Press
In anticipation of Rabbi Gross’ awesome-sounding class on Jewish conspiracy theories, I decided to do a little research into the unfortunate attack in Boston. More specifically, I was curious about the response online. (Human) nature abhors a vacuum, so there should be plenty of “answers” available. Who are the guys who did this? Why? What will happen next?
For instance: It was an inside job! The bombs were set off by the U.S. government, as part of some sort of drill. It’s called a “False flag attack,” and staged with the specific intent to take away our civil liberties. As soon as Monday, within hours after the bombs exploded, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had to field questions about that exact theory.
“The governor responded with a terse ‘No.’ He should have said: ‘No, you idiot,’ but I give him credit for restraint,” wrote Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune.
The Westboro Baptists immediately tweeted the bombs were sent by God as punishment for the legalization of gay-marriage. Several stories circulated on the internet about a man who planned to propose to his girlfriend, but she died before she reached the finish line; the eight-year-old child who died was actually a female student from Sandy Hook Elementary, and officials had announced a fake drill via twitter. All these stories were false, but they traveled with the speed of light.
Some pundits claimed that photos of IED victims in Afghanistan were passed off as Boston related material, while others proposed the notion that all images of the wounded were actually pictures of actors, and none of this was real. But: North Korea was behind the attack, and oh, by the way: the Tea Party is being set up by the Federal Reserve to usher in a global currency.
The strangest story was perhaps the one related to the Television show Family Guy. A clip posted on the Internet purported to show a segment from the March 17, 2013 episode, depicting the Boston Marathon bombings. It was digitally altered, says Snopes.com, but why, nobody knows. As far as conspiracy theories go, this one’s just weird. A secret message in a cartoon, announcing a terrorist attack? Didn’t we already deal with similar bunk when Disney’s The Lion King came out?
In the past, these types of fairy tales didn’t make it further than the corner pub, but nowadays everyone’s on facebook. They spread like wildfire. What’s more: weird stories are easily told in 140 characters or less. Instead of muttering something unintelligible into your beer, you can post it on Twitter, and people will read it.
“I don’t think there’s any question whatsoever that we see more and more conspiracy theories invading mainstream American political life,” said Mark Potok off the Southern Poverty Law Center. “What we’ve seen in the last few years is really quite mind-boggling. It’s not merely that some nutty people on the fringe of the fringe believe very far-out things that have no basis in reality. It’s that these beliefs make their way right into the political mainstream and into the heart of our political system.”
That means the rest of us must work much harder to separate fact from fiction. We owe that to the victims, and we owe it to ourselves. The Internet is a digital version of the Wild West; this much information at our fingertips can either make us smarter, or we can collectively dumb down.
When my iPhone freezes up, I can go online and figure out how to fix it in under a minute. When I want to know whether it’s going to rain, I pull up NOAA’s website and check the radar. But if I want to know about terror suspects, political motives, or “who’s behind what,’ I have to be careful. After all, the political mainstream that Potok talks about is not so mainstream anymore. More voices means more chaos, and the public has the responsibility to sift through it.
Great concept: responsibility. It works like this: Don’t believe everything you read! In spite of many warnings, we still have a certain respect for the written word, no matter how dangerous that written word can be. But if we truly value our free speech, we have to do the work of separating the good from the bad. With great privilege comes great (there you have it!) responsibility.
Rabbi Gross’ class Jewish Conspiracy Theories (which really has nothing to do with this editorial) is presented by the Center for Jewish Life on May 3, 10 and 24 from 11 a.m. to noon. For more information and to register, contact Mark Kirchhoff at 402.334.6463 or mkirchhoff@jewishomaha.org.