The Danger of the Modern Rumor Mill

Of the many ills born of the internet and social media is the unbridled and unparalleled power they have to spread rumors and conspiracy theories.

To this day, there are people who, because they saw the charge on their screens, believe that Jews were warned to stay away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Others, similarly “informed” by any of a number of websites or social media, remain convinced that the attack that day wasn’t an attack at all but rather an implosion of the Twin Towers planned and executed by the U.S. government.

In the aftermath of the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, murder of 20 six- and seven-year-olds, and six school employees, the conspiracy theorists denied that the massacre even happened (claiming that it was a ruse by then-President Obama/the anti-gun movement/the “New World Order global elitists” (i.e. Jews). They went so far as to hound, online and off, the bereaved parents of one murdered child, Noah Posner, a”h, characterizing him as a “fake child” who never existed.

After the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in cold blood, the conspiracy mill didn’t take long to grease its wheels.

This time, though, the electronic rumormongers apparently felt they couldn’t effectively undermine the cellphone and, ironically, social media communications sent out in real time by the young people who were under siege at the school. So they couldn’t claim it didn’t happen.

But, less than an hour after the shooting, social media accounts were claiming that eyewitnesses imploring the government to enact stricter gun control measures were “crisis actors” — people paid to play disaster victims in emergency drills. Over ensuing days, the narrative of “fake victims” gained steam.

One survivor of the recent massacre, a 17-year-old named David Hogg, was a particularly popular target, seemingly because his father is a retired FBI agent. A fake profile misrepresenting his school life was posted online and was shared over 100,000 times.

The teenager was condemned as “an actor,” deployed to further the cause of gun control, which a substantial part of the conspiracy theory community considers a threat to their Constitutional right to own weapons.

A radio program host named Alex Jones, for example, who hosts a website and who helped spread the myth that the Sandy Hook shooting spree never happened, acknowledged that, at the Florida high school, “real people were shot,” but insisted that victims who have been agitating for government action to curb assault-style weapons and to enact universal background checks for gun purchases have been put up to that effort by unnamed anti-gun forces.

Another popular media outlet, shared a video of Mr. Hogg stumbling over his words as he recalled the shooting, and suggested that the boy’s lack of verbal fluency proved that he had “been coached on anti-Trump lines.” And that the FBI, the presumed coach of the young man, “is only looking to curb your Constitutional rights and increase their power. We’ve seen similar moves by them many times over.”

It was but one of the postings that peddled demonstrably false theories that aimed to defame the mass-shooting survivor as an imposter and shill for gun control forces.

For his part, Mr. Hogg, who was in fact a student at the school and present amid the carnage, informed the world that “I am not a crisis actor. I’m somebody that had to witness this and live through this and I continue to have to do that.”

Particularly disturbing was how misinformation was repeated by ostensibly responsible people, like an aide to a Florida state representative who maintained that two survivors who had been interviewed and begged for gun control “are not students here but actors that travel to various crises when they happen.” The Broward County Schools Superintendent, who checked the school’s student list, begged to differ and called the aide’s comments “outrageous and disrespectful.”

He might have well added “dangerous,” too, as conspiracy theories are not mere distractions or annoyances. They have the potential of molding the views of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of well-meaning people who are susceptible to influences and unable or unwilling to critically subject rumors and claims to investigation.

Chazal foresaw that, as the time of Moshiach draws nearer, ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” (Sotah 49b). It’s not hard to imagine that our times well qualify for that description. May ultimate truth arrive soon, accompanying the go’el tzedek.