Dealing with conspiracy theories after disasters

REMEMBER 9/11 and the conspiracy theories about moslems being warned to stay away from the World Trade Centre just before it was attacked?

Remember 9/11 and the conspiracy theories about the Saudis being behind the World Trade Centre attack?

Remember 9/11 and the conspiracy theories about the US government being behind the attacks?

Remember any other disasters and the shadowy conspiracies behind them?

And this month’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral? Yes, it was the moslems again. Or maybe it was someone else. Nobody’s quite sure. Other than the conspiracy theorists, that is.

Writing about the conspiracy theories following the Norte Dame fire, Bethania Palma from myth-busting organisation, snopes.com, wrote:

Conspiracy theorists instantly attributed the fire to Islamic terrorists and compared the event to 9/11. Some shared audio recordings they falsely claimed captured Muslims shouting Islamic slogans at the scene. Others touted videos and images supposedly showing Muslims celebrating and laughing at the destruction of the cathedral. Still others asserted a nonexistent link between the Notre Dame fire and a foiled terrorist plot that actually took place in 2016.

We might not know the details of the fire yet, but here is what we do know: conspiracy theorists arise after disasters like maggots rising from a dead horse.

What do citizen journalists do?

First, citizen journalists expect people to speculate about the cause of a disaster. Most of that will be people trying to make sense of what has happened and most of it will leave open the attribution of blame. Citizen journalists expect conjecture about the motives of anyone identified by the authorities as being responsible. Authorities seldom speculate.

Citizen journalists do not make assumptions about shadowy figures behind a disaster. They await official confirmation as to its cause. Only then do they delve further if that official confirmation seems dodgy or a cover-up.

Second, citizen journalists know that government, the CIA, moslems, the particular folk-devils of the month (the demographic currently the focus of public uncertainty and fear), particular politicians or corporations or the pharma-industrial-complex will be identified as causing the disaster by people who have no qualifications or skills in investigation.

As skeptics, citizen journalists judge conspiratorial claims on their merit. We do not discount the claims no matter how unlikely they sound. We ask: Does the claim defy common sense? How likely is the claim to be true? Are there precedents? What would be the motives of the claimed perpetrators? Where is the evidence, direct or circumstantial? Only then do we make a conclusion as to the likely truth-value of the conspiratorial claim.

When it comes to claims made by conspiracy theorists, we ask:

  • how do conspiracy theorists know what they claim to know? where is their evidence?
  • how did they come by this knowledge?
  • how reliable are their sources?
  • can they produce verifiable evidence?
  • is it valid evidence? is it scientific consensus, not just the claim of one or a few scientists, rather what most consider to be true?
  • who are the conspiracists?
  • have they made conspiratorial claims about other disasters? were they right or wrong? what is their track record in making such claims?
  • are they trying to sell us something?

When it come to conspiracy theories around disasters, it pays to remember astronomer Carl Sagan’s advice about unlikely-sounding claims: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.