Why the Conspiracy Theorists Will Have a Tough Time With Boston

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 15 2013 10:23 PM

Why the Conspiracy Theorists Will Have a Tough Time With Boston

Shortly before 9 p.m. I got out of a much-needed, much-delayed catch-up with a friend who shared my desire to escape—briefly—the news from Boston. It was inescapable. A bar next door had turned a flatscreen toward the street, then cranked up the sound so that CNN's live feed/interviews/speculation echoed around the block, attracting a steady crowd.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

We walked past it right in time to hear the "false flag" guy. Dan Bidondi, a "reporter/analyist" (sic) for Alex Jones' Infowars, managed to ask Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick the very first question in a nationally televised press conference. 

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?
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Patrick, looking on with a mixture of rage and pity, said "no," surely aware that he couldn't halt this guy's incipient Internet fame.

Which I'm furthering by writing about him. Sorry about that.

Still, the emergence of the truthers was inevitable. My friend Alex Seitz-Wald was writing about it 90 minutes after the bombing, explaining that Jones et al. looked at the carnage and figured "the government did it and is going to pin the blame on them because today is Patriots’ Day, a special day in the militia movement." More than 11,000 people quickly shared Seitz-Wald's article on Facebook, because before we actually know anything about the perpetrators of the bombings, the truthers make useful punching bags. Like Seitz-Wald says, it's easier to mock them than to speculate about right-wing motives (and become infamous on Fox) or Muslim connections (and ... feel no repercussions, really, but probably make yourself unelectable in 23 or 24 states).

But the truthers have a tough road ahead. The attacks in Boston lack a number of the factors they need to concoct a really compelling conspiracy theory. They're always on the lookout for a "false flag" attack, a government-run ruse intended to bring public opinion in line. In reality, the last example they can point to of this is the Reichstag Fire; in fiction, it's usually fun to point to Watchmen. But the Boston bombings are going to present some challenges.

Too many cameras and witnesses. There's hi-def video of the first explosion from Boston.com, and there'll inevitably be more video from the spectators filming their friends at the finish line. Compare this with the classic founts of conspiracythink: the meetings at Bohemian Grove, the Pentagon's damage on 9/11, the Kennedy assassination. The massacres at Sandy Hook, Aurora, and the parking lot in Tucson happened with no video cameras rolling.

Bad information dies quicker these days. Most 9/11 conspiracy theories, as my colleague Jeremy Stahl discovered in 2011, were rooted in erroneous news reports. These things happen; reporters on the scene are hustling and chasing rumors and tips, and sometimes bogus news gets out. But rumors don't fester like they used to. Shoddy rumors are run up the Twitter flagpole, then debunked; video, which includes the errors, can live online forever, but so can the corrections issued by the networks.

No politician really stands to gain. This was supposed to be the week of liberal breakthroughs on guns and immigration. Both of those issues, and related bills, fade from the priority list for a few days. If you give the 9/11 conspiracy theorist a ton of credit—and why would you?—he draws a line from the aftermath to the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq War. The Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist points out that we got a debate on gun control. The reaction to a bombing at a marathon will bring ... what? Unenforceable security standards on all city streets? Further militarization of police forces, something that was already under way?

So far, the conspiracies are weak. And so easily debunked! There were no "loudspeakers telling people in the audience to be calm." Jones seems obsessed with proving that there were bomb-sniffing dogs on site. It's a comforting worldview—the only way that police on the scene might have missed the bombs is a conspiracy of silence. You can understand why they cling to this. Maybe they shouldn't get the first questions during the press conferences, though.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.