The night of the Boston Marathon bombing, Slate political reporter David Weigel posted an essay arguing that unlike other tragedies and major crimes that have fired the imaginations of conspiracymongers, this one boasted too much reality-based evidence, especially photographic and video evidence, to give much encouragement to nutballs and magical thinkers.
“Why the Conspiracy Theorists Will Have a Tough Time With Boston,” the piece was headlined. It advanced a host of compelling reasons—notably that too many hard facts and high-def images were widely available on the Internet, that social media would quickly debunk bogus rumors and bad info, and that politicians wouldn’t be able to exploit the carnage to their advantage—to explain why crazy-paranoid conspiracy scenarios would rapidly fizzle.
Weigel’s prediction was overly optimistic.
In the 10 days since the lethal explosions, strange and alarming hypotheses have descended on the Web like a swarm of locusts: the Boston bombing was staged by the government; Michelle Obama plotted with a Saudi national; Tamerlan Tsarnaev was taken naked and alive, then killed by authorities before he could speak the truth. The proliferation and sheer power of such ideas come as no surprise to Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of psychology who has made a study of the conspiracy-obsessed.
“Whenever there is a seemingly random tragic event, people seek to explain it in a way that reduces their fear,” Lewandowsky tells me from Bristol University in the United Kingdom, where he is on sabbatical from his academic chair as a cognitive scientist at the University of Western Australia. “Paradoxically, it is much easier for people to accept the idea of a government conspiracy than it is to believe that it was just a random act.”
Lewandowsky, whose study of conspiracy-minded climate-change deniers was recently featured in The New Yorker, continues: “Now that sounds really weird if you think about it: why would a conspiracy make you feel happier than a random act? But it turns out that there is some data on that. If people have a specific enemy, that actually gives them a sense of control in their response, instead of to a diffuse sort of threat. I think that’s what’s driving this, in part—the need to control your fear of random evilness. It’s much a better picture to have an enemy whom you can blame.”
“I think they’re watching themselves being ignored, and that’s the one thing they hate. So they just crank up the volume and spread their falsehoods and nonsense.”
To paraphrase the famed comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy ... and he is them. Trumpeted in recent days by likes of Alex Jones of Infowars and Glenn Beck of TheBlaze, two of the more notorious and media-savvy conspiracy peddlers, many of the Boston narratives fall under the category of “false flag” theories—a term derived from a naval-warfare tactic whereby a ship flies the flag of its foe to mount a surprise attack on enemy vessels.
In false-flag theories about the Boston bombings, what looks to credulous innocents (such as the FBI and the cops) like a criminal act of terror is, in reality, a sinister clandestine operation by the government to sow panic among the citizenry and thereby slash freedoms, declare martial law, and tighten the government’s iron grip on everyday existence.
Stella Tremblay, a heretofore unknown Republican state legislator from Auburn, New Hampshire, marvelously synthesized the prevailing false-flag theories, including those of Jones and Beck, by embracing the irresistible notion that, as she wrote on Beck’s Facebook wall, “the Boston Marathon was a Black Ops ‘terrorist’ attack. One suspect killed, the other one will be too before they even have a chance to speak. Drones and now ‘terrorist’ attacks by our own Government. Sad day, but a ‘wake up’ to all of us.”
If Tremblay had more time and space, perhaps she could have given due consideration to additional false-flag gems, such as Michelle Obama’s hospital visit allegedly to plot with the Saudi student who was injured in the blast, the starring roles of actors on the asphalt spouting fake blood for closed-circuit cameras, and, lest we forget, the report that bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, now dead, was taken alive—and naked—by law-enforcement authorities.
Lewandowsky says many of these outlandish assertions are work of “merchants of fear” like Jones and Beck—entrepreneurs of conspiracy who obtain fame, Web traffic, and income through marketing their theories. “There’s the consumer side of these theories and the production side,” he says. “There are people who consume these theories and believe in them, and then there are those who actively produce them. Sometimes the distinction is pretty fluid, because a lot of people who consume this stuff also contribute to it. You have to create some distinction between the consumers and those who generate notoriety or fame or Internet traffic or whatever it is—and clearly that seems to be their motivation as well.”
Could Beck and Jones et al be cynically conspiracy theorizing for bucks?
“Well, I can’t look inside their head,” Lewandowsky demurs. “But there is a lot of suggestive evidence that people say crazy things sometimes just to be noticed. I know this from my work on climate-change denial—because if no one is listening to these guys, or fewer people are listening to them, the more over the top they go, and the crazier their pronouncements become. I think they’re watching themselves being ignored, and that’s the one thing they hate. So they just crank up the volume and spread their falsehoods and nonsense—and that might be some of what’s going on here as well.”
According to two experimental studies by Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton, two psychology professors at the University of Kent, there is also a strong correlation between susceptibility to conspiracy theories and a willingness to engage actively in a conspiracy itself.
“We advance a new account of why people endorse conspiracy theories, arguing that individuals use the social-cognitive tool of projection when making social judgments about others,” the authors wrote. “In two studies, we found that individuals were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they thought they would be willing, personally, to participate in the alleged conspiracies ... These results suggest that some people think ‘they conspired’ because they think ‘I would conspire.’”
It’s a conclusion that could partly explain the actions of the brothers Tsarnaev, who apparently embraced the radical Islam strain of false-flag theorizing before allegedly conspiring together to wreak mayhem on their supposed enemy.