Connecting the Dots

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1996

Is the Internet really a forum capable of exposing our governments’ deepest, darkest secrets, or is it just a hotbed for conspiracy theorists and the dissemination of their most paranoid delusions to an uncritical audience?

Officials from the FBI, Secret Service, and US Navy are still busy denying assertions by former Kennedy administration Press Secretary and TV reporter Pierre Salinger that TWA flight 800 was actually shot down by a US Navy missile. According to Salinger, he received a document proving this to be the case from a French intelligence agent who got the incriminating paperwork from a U.S. Secret Service agent. Last Friday, he admitted that the document has been available on the Internet since July 30. \[\]

In October, the San Jose Mercury News printed a story, also vehemently denied by US officials, that the CIA helped distributed crack in American inner-cities as part of their support for contra forces in Nicaragua. The paper presented its findings as if it were breaking news. The photos and evidence of these charges had been available on the Internet for several years. \[\]

In the case of flight 800, it appears that the now-infamous photo accidentally snapped by a woman attending a party on an outdoor terrace of Long Island restaurant may, indeed, show a mysterious streak in the sky just minutes before the felling of the plane - but that she was facing the opposite direction in the sky at the time. Though now all-but entirely discredited in the mainstream media, debate and speculation about the possibility of “friendly fire” downing flight 800 rages on in conspiracy-related Usenet groups.

As for the CIA-Contra scandal, pretty hard evidence linking US agents and their operatives to aircraft and landing strips used for drug trafficking as well as drug “kingpins” and narcotics distributors has been available for years. Several quite convincing documentaries were produced and even aired on U.S. and British television during the late 1980’s - but these films were still considered part of the “alternative” or “underground” media, and could easily be dismissed. Only when a more mainstream media outlet began to cover the story this fall did it elevate to the status of “hard news.”

Whether or not these frightening allegations prove to be true, I doubt either inquiry would have reached its current level of mainstream media speculation had it not been for the intense and prolonged scrutiny by Internet conspiracy theorists. The Internet tends to breed both level-headed, critical anti-government suspicion and unfounded paranoid fantasy. The challenge now is to learn how to distinguish between the two.

The Internet’s reputation for spreading unfounded rumors - from the non-existent “Good Times” computer virus to the dying boy in England to whom we’re all supposed to send “get well” cards - has reduced its status from a credible alternative information source to a giant gossip mill. The FBI defended itself against Salinger’s charges simply by announcing that they had originally come from the Internet; this was enough to make them trivial in the eyes of the mainstream media.

It is perhaps sad but undeniably true that the very architecture of the Internet tends to provoke paranoid responses and foment conspiracy theories. The fact that anyone can publish a clean-looking web site gives everyone equal footing in disseminating whatever information or theories they may believe to be true. I, myself, couldn’t help but be persuaded that the photos and text displayed on the flight 800 web site demonstrated navy complicity in shooting down the plane. As all of us become aware that the mainstream media has interests of its own, we naturally turn to the Web for alternative points of view. We’re not yet used to the idea that Web site writers and builders are not as accountable for what they post as the reporters for papers “of record.”

But I’m also concerned that people who surf and publish on the Web might be more susceptible to paranoia, and that this susceptibility may be taking a toll on our ability to think clearly about the world around us.

The most promising and most potentially debilitating feature of the Internet is that it allows us to make connections between things we couldn’t connect before. As we navigate our own path through information rather than following the path prescribed by top-down news agencies, we begin to form associations and recognize patterns for ourselves.

On one level, this is extremely healthy. Rather than using the road maps drawn by others, we gain the ability to orient our passage through extraordinarily discontinuous terrain by forming our own mental connections between formerly distinct places and ideas. The Internet has deconstructed our world for us better than any post-modern social theorist could. But that leaves us with the responsibility of reconstructing our world on the fly - connecting the dots for ourselves.

Conspiracy theorists are simply people who connect too many dots. In confronting the disorienting array of possibilities that the chaotic Internet culture has spawned, they would rather believe that there’s someone or something behind it all. In some ways, I suppose, it’s easier to believe there’s a malevolent force responsible for the seemingly random nature of our modern world than face the fact that there might not be anyone in charge at all.