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Using Tragedy to Promote Hate: Lies and Myths After the Boston Bombings

Kalia Abiade • May 09, 2013

It has been nearly one month since the Boston Marathon bombings, and though suspects have been named, there are still many unknowns about the attacks and what — or who — motivated them.

The life span of a criminal investigation — especially one of this magnitude — is much longer than the whiplash-inducing pace of modern news and information cycles. The Boston investigation is no different. There are still many unanswered questions and new details emerging daily, and, barring some sort of plea deal or legal maneuver, it’s possible there is a long and arduous trial ahead. However, these uncertainties have not stopped cable news outlets, Internet detectives and bloggers from passing off a slew of rumors and partial truths as fact to either push xenophobic stereotypes and/or to imply that President Obama and the White House were complicit in the attacks and have something to hide.

Here’s a look at some of the most egregious rumors and myths perpetuated in the days after the attacks and some that have been sustained in the weeks since:

False flag attack

Alex Jones, conservative radio talk show host, claimed the bombings were government-sponsored to allow the TSA’s reach to extend to sporting events.

It took notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones all of 30 minutes from the time of the bombings to take to Twitter to assert “this thing stinks to high heaven #falseflag”.

Jones, known for his outlandish false flag accusations (see 9/11, Waco, Newtown, etc.), and various other bloggers ran with the idea that the U.S. government was somehow responsible for the attacks with the intent of expanding the Transportation Security Administration’s reach to sporting events. Jones even went on to imply that the FBI is behind most acts of terrorism and to point out a coincidental “controlled explosion drill” by the Boston bomb squad the same day.

Saudi person of interest

Glenn Beck‘s website, The Blaze, was quick to attempt to discredit Jones’ false flag alert. However, Beck had another conspiracy theory in mind. Even after the Tsarnaev brothers were officially named as suspects and hunted down, Beck and several others on the right would not let go of an earlier New York Post report that a Saudi national was responsible for the attacks.

Terrorism “expert” Steven Emerson first passed along this story line on Sean Hannity’s show, and later took it to Beck’s broadcast. Predictably, Pamela Geller also picked it up, going a step further to use others’ description of him as a “devout Muslim” as a launching pad for religious smears.

This storyline persisted despite government officials multiple attempts to refute it and an embarrassing self-sabatoge by Beck on his own show. Apparently, the rumor-mongers had their man confused with a separate Saudi national who was being deported on a completely separate matter. The first Saudi national was never a suspect; rather, he was a victim running away from the explosions to protect himself. And since they couldn’t peg this man as a suspect, Beck and company instead lambasted Michelle Obama for visiting him in the hospital.

Sunil Tripathi

In perhaps the most shameful of the Boston smear campaigns, Internet denizens began to speculate that the grainy image of the younger Tsarnaev brother was actually a photograph of missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi. He had been missing since March, and his family was actively using various social media platforms to try to locate him. On unknown authority, questionable sources named Tripathi as a suspect. As a result, news vans parked in front of the Tripathi’s home and reporters flooded the family with phone calls. “It was absolutely horrible,” Tripathi’s mother told the New York Times. To make matters worse, several news outlets and blogs neglected to update their information once it was revealed that the worst fears of Tripathi’s family were true and he was found dead near Providence, Rhode Island. As of May 8, Geller and right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin still had Tripathi’s name listedas a suspect.

CNN anchor John King received much criticism for his vague and ill-informed description that police were looking for a “dark-skinned suspect.”

“Bag men” and “dark-skinned men”

As if the Saudi national thread wasn’t enough, the New York Post also published a picture on its front page showing two marathon spectators who happened to be brown-skinned, strongly implying that they were suspects. The headline read: “Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The actual article stopped short of that accusation.

Far-right blogger Debbie Schlussel quickly jumped on this, filling her April 18 blog entry with a series of racially charged quips. She writes, “Funny how the pics of the suspects the FBI is looking for in the Boston Marathon Terrorist Attack look strangely Middle-Eastern . . . and not of the Israeli Jew variety, ain’t it?”

Neither of the individuals in the pictures were ever accused of any wrongdoing, and one of the young men turned out to be a 17-year-old high school track athlete of Moroccan descent, which apparently was still proof enough for Schlussel that he is guilty of something. Recent reports indicate that his father is considering a lawsuit against the Post.

This type of xenophobic finger-pointing has come to be expected of right-wing characters such as Schlussel. Whether or not it should be, it’s somewhat more surprising with more “mainstream” media personalities promote similar thinking. CNN’s John King didn’t bother with specific ethnic stereotyping, instead he just passed along information that authorities were looking for a “dark-skinned” suspect.

News outlets and those in the business of sharing news online — whether professionally or socially — must become more mindful in the way they share information. The Islamophobic hate crimes in the immediate aftermath of the bombings and the difficulty that comes with clearing one’s name an after intense smear campaign, leave no room for reckless and unethical information-exchange, let alone careless journalism.

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