I write again on the occasion of another sad mass shooting in America. The nature of the shooting, an attack that killed a score of children and half a dozen others at a school in Connecticut, is simply horrific; any comprehension of it eludes the healthy mind.
Conspiracy theorists are already busy on the job weaving imaginary connections and, not twenty-four hours in, had begun forcing the facts into standard pre-existing narratives for mass-shootings. The most popular so far seem to be that the shooter was brainwashed, that there were actually multiple shooters, and that the whole event was planned as a pretext for a government gun-grab.
We have been flooded with a constant barrage of information about this tragedy since it began to unfold, and not all of that information has been true. Some has been spectacularly far from the mark. In order to formulate a thoughtful response to the horrors inflicted upon us by the shooter, no matter his intention or disposition, we need to be able to understand how information comes to us and understand that we can anticipate that it will change.
This will perhaps be a basic primer for many readers of the CSI website, and I may be restating something that skeptics do instinctively, but it’s worth repeating. New media, especially YouTube, has changed the public’s relationship to news and information in a way that has made conspiracy theories not only more prevalent but also a much more participatory pursuit. For this reason, it is vital that any student of conspiracy theory attain some degree of media literacy. A good place to start is with the information cycle.
The “information cycle” is a concept that comes out of media studies and posits that newsworthy information passes through a fairly consistent sequence of media outlets as it makes its way into the history books. Knowing the stage in the information cycle at which a particular source was produced can help researchers determine what a source is best used as evidence of. For example, let’s consider the story of the Challengerdisaster. When television viewers watching the launch live saw the shuttle explode, the story began its course through the information cycle. The first news reports that people encountered were in broadcast media, both on television and radio as events unfolded live. The limited amount of information that was known was reported as it was received. That information was soon augmented by eyewitness accounts and backed by the speculation and commentary of experts and pundits.
The first complete accounts the events (cause still unknown) were the stories in the newspaper the next day. Over the next weeks and months, as the story developed and the investigation into the disaster focused on the mechanical and management failures that contributed to the disaster, the story passed into weekly magazines, where the topics were explored in more depth and at some length. Finally we saw the Challengerdisaster work its way into journals and books, where the event was likely to be placed within an informed and more fully fleshed-out historical context.
The information cycle, which one thinks of as “the way in which newsworthy events are experienced and understood over time,” is changing, and a lot of this is due to the possibilities of new media. A defining aspect of new media is how it has changed audience members’ relationship to information from that of passive consumers to that of active participants in the creation of content. This has come about through the widespread availability of cheap video cameras and inexpensive video editing software. The type of media that used to take a large production studio, pressroom, and distribution network to disseminate now takes minutes for a single person with an Internet connection to get out there.
Despite the conspiracy theorists’ claims that media gatekeepers are constantly withholding vital information from the public, modern media makes it easier for inaccurate initial information to spread and endure. Take, for instance, what happened when an unnamed law enforcement source leaked a name that was reportedly that of the Sandy Hook shooter, “Ryan Lanza.” This was a misidentification, but the announcement set off a cascade of events that led to the wrong image being used to identify the shooter on CNN, Fox News, CBS, and innumerable other outlets within minutes. According to Jeff Jarvis, an experienced journalist and professor who prematurely shared his observations about a twitter account that later turned out to not be the Sandy Hook shooter’s:
One of the key skills of the journalist today is not to say what we know, but to say what we don’t know. That’s been the case since 24-hour cable news came along, where everybody becomes a witness to a story as it unfolds and those of us who were reporters back in the day of pay telephones and notebooks know that oftentimes by the time our deadline came around, we learned a lot more and we were saved from many ‘instant errors’ because of the time and the structure of the press. Well, that’s gone now, both because of 24-hour cable news and now because of the Internet, and further gone because anyone can do this. So it’s not just about training journalists when that photo gets retweeted, retweeted and retweeted, it’s the same difference—it doesn’t matter if a journalist did it.
Furthermore, news, no matter its quality or accuracy, has a longer lifespan on the Internet than it did two decades ago. Footage of erroneous reporting can be captured and distributed widely, and those images retain their immediacy as they get mixed and remixed into no-budget YouTube conspiracy videos alongside better information, often making it difficult to discern what is good information and what is bad information. What comes to mind immediately is the eyewitness testimony of people who had been near the Twin Towers when they collapsed. The sound bites and interviews of stunned people covered in gray dust have been archived and live on in cyberspace. This is not a bad thing in itself, of course, but without an awareness of where those clips entered the information cycle (and the subsequent possibility that that information will turn out to be if not completely inaccurate, at least incomplete) someone viewing those clips now might be led to some rather improbable conclusions.
Forgetting that reporters, as a rule, try not to report what is known to be inaccurate information, conspiracy theorists will point to the early, more tentative reporting as evidence that something is being swept under the rug. In reality, a week into the Sandy Hook story, parallel narratives had developed in the mainstream media and in the alternative (and proud of it) media. In the mainstream media, the story is that of an investigation into the motivation of Adam Lanza, the individual who was found dead at the scene with a gun taken from the house of a relative who had been shot the same day, and the individual who reportedly was too impatient to wait for a background check when he tried to legally secure his own weapon a few weeks ago. Some would call this converging evidence leading to an increasingly certain conclusion that Adam Lanza was in fact the one who pulled the trigger.
In the alternative media, the possibilities and uncertainties are blossoming unabated, leading to increasingly baroque explanations and imaginary linkages. Conspiracy theorists have predictably seized on the earliest, most confused and jumbled reporting that came out on the morning of the shooting. Veterans Today contributor Kevin Barrett wrote on Dec 17:
Since we know that many if not most “lone nut” massacres are actually false-flag operations, we might as well assume that this one is too. Getting that message out early, in order to shape public opinion while it is still malleable, should be a top priority of everyone who wants to put the real terrorists out of business.
[...] So the first priority of all truth-seekers must be to “catapult the counter-narrative” as quickly as possible.
This is especially horrifying for those of us who value conclusions drawn from evidence over conclusion-driven cherry picking. Barrett follows up with a widely-circulated list of “inconsistencies” that in part draws on confused reporting from the first day’s events, which, though discarded from the media’s narrative of events as more evidence has accumulated, endures as the “official story” in the minds of conspiracy theorists. These include early reports that the shooter was wearing body armor (he wasn’t), that the mother of the shooter was connected to the school (she wasn’t), and the misidentification of the shooter as Ryan Lanza (the shooter was his brother, Adam).
Confusion and contradicting reports are exactly what we should expect in the earliest hours of a news story. We should expect the false reports to travel far in the media and online. We should expect news reporters who are interested in the truth to adjust their stories to conform to the evidence as new evidence becomes available. What conspiracy theorists identify as “cover-up” is actually good journalism, and it is helping audiences understand this is something that the media should emphasize. Jeff Jarvis makes the point nicely:
I think that we have a larger job and a bigger challenge which is to make sure that everyone knows that you can’t trust what you learn immediately, and that if you do choose to spread it, that you have a responsibility to say how you know what you know.