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Fan Theories of Political Reality Are Going to Get People Killed

Even if you remember something of the chaos that followed 2013’s Boston Marathon Bombing, the name Sunil Tripathi may not ring a bell. Before authorities were able to name their suspects in the terrorist attack and ensuing manhunt, thousands of amateur sleuths on Reddit had begun to crowdsource their own investigation, and they eventually surfaced Tripathi, a Brown University undergrad who had gone missing more than a month before. This misidentification made it as far as the mainstream media, as detailed in the documentary Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi, before the FBI contradicted it. Days after one of the bombers had been killed and the other arrested, Tripathi’s body was found in a river in Rhode Island. He had committed suicide.

It was a tragic end to one thread of a disturbing story — but also the start of many threads to come. Although people acknowledged the dangers and inevitable failures of these ad hoc social media inquiries into yet-unfolding events, virtually nothing was done to protect against internet detectives flying off the rails again. Tripathi’s case heralded a new form of real-time conspiracy-mongering, fake information perpetuated under the guise of “helping” the police and built on the assumption that an extremely online populace is simply better at observing or cross-referencing minute detail.

The paranoia of the Trump age — with so much incompetence, corruption and fascism in plain view — has turbocharged the hacks who would be citizen journalists, digital gumshoes and armchair pundits, all of them eager to grasp a central, slippery truth. In practice, what they say is fucking gibberish. You know, like when some guy does a 127-tweet thread declaring “it’s time for some game theory” but includes nothing of the sort.

Or when someone claims that a powerful White House figure — who has not been arrested — is facing the death penalty for espionage. She heard it from “sources,” see.

Or when, among the far right, various weirdos decide to focus their rage on a random pizzeria they’re convinced is a front for a vast pedophile ring, prompting a man to show up and fire an assault rifle inside — and then move on to the batshit theory that pretty much everything happening in the political sphere is proof of a silent war between Trump and the child-sex-slave trafficking, deep state liberal establishment, once more inciting violence against their shadowy opponents. What could possibly go wrong?

Last week, the Washington Post gave column inches to a fun new bit of fan fiction. In an op-ed titled “Is There A Kavanaugh Doppelgänger?” writer Kathleen Parker put forth the idea that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — who has credibly, and at great personal risk, accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school — may have been attacked by some other guy who looks like him. Faster that you could say, “You are out of your goddamned mind,” Kavanaugh’s defenders ran with “doppelgänger theory,” and other commentators felt duty-bound to treat the fantasy seriously. Conservative activist Ed Whelan went as far as to cobble a bunch of dumb conjectures and the floor plans of a house he found on the real estate website Zillow into a spurious Making a Murderer-style exculpation that also happened to baselessly defame a different man with a passing resemblance to Kavanaugh. Fox & Friends parroted this tripe as plausible the next morning; Whelan deleted the thread (perhaps in fear of a lawsuit), leaving some to speculate broadly about its genesis.

Oh, and some highly placed dim-bulbs are more than disposed to trust Whelan’s Twin Peaks pitch regardless of its rank idiocy or Ford’s reply. She socialized with both Kavanaugh and the other man, she said, and had “zero chance” of confusing them.

Where is all this trash coming from? The American consciousness is no stranger to counternarratives or secret histories, of course, but there’s a difference between Oliver Stone making a conspiracy thriller about who really killed JFK almost 30 years after the Warren Commission and partisan operatives explaining away fresh criminal allegations like a bunch of neckbeards trying to justify plot holes in Game of Thrones.

And that’s where we’re at: It’s now completely normal for uninvolved rubberneckers to piece together the sprawling chaos of our political reality the way they would analyze the post-credits sequence of a Marvel movie. Only this country isn’t a clean story or solvable mystery — even if the media and internet do repackage it as a ghastly kind of entertainment — and the victims actually exist. Nobody gets hurt if you guessed wrong about who shot J.R., but naming people as mass shooters when they had nothing to do with these murders could have dire consequences. The rush to go viral or be the first to what will become the official account is outweighing any concern for the aftermath.

There are entire professional classes — reporters and law enforcement — trained to the task of settling facts where none seem apparent. That we’ve lately grown to mistrust their institutions on these matters is in part due to their significant flaws, but it’s also the byproduct of a web-driven overconfidence. After a decade with the sum network of global information snug in our pockets, we think we have the tools to decode anything, to attain expertise instantly, mostly because you can Google theories around your favorite TV show and later pretend you came up with them yourself.

Mastery of content makes us omniscient: That’s the delusion of our day, and it’s too bad, as it might have gone the other way — a universe of knowledge allowing us to see how little we know.