Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My own investigation into a crazy conspiracy theory

I was working as a newspaper reporter in the pre-Web era, and our newspaper was receiving multiple calls about a particularly horrifying incident. 

A woman, the callers claimed, was out shopping in the local mall and in a store bathroom when a robber approach her. The robber demanded her valuables, including the ring on her finger. He couldn't pull the ring off, so he cut off her ring finger. 

The people calling the newspaper wanted to know why we hadn't reported it. An editor tasked me with finding out. The callers were readers of our paper. 

 I got on the phone with one of the callers and asked her about it. 

How did she learn of it? A close friend told her, she said. Does your friend know the victim? She didn't know, but she put me in touch with her friend. The second person heard it from someone else and didn't have direct knowledge of the alleged victim. Who told her? She didn't want to say. Ok, I said. But how did she know it was true? She just knew it, she explained. She was convinced of it.

I learned nothing that could help me track down the victim. Not one clue, and all the "facts" that the callers provided were incredibly vague when it came to any specifics. It was frustrating, and adding to this was the underlying suspicion by the callers that the newspaper was a party to the conspiracy.

In the minds of the callers, this failure by the police and the media to report the crime had a rational explanation. The incident would hurt the mall's business. 

There was no simple way to check this out. I couldn't Google "urban legends," and "conspiracy theories." There was no Reddit group devoted to this because there was no Reddit. It was the 1980s. 

The cops knew the story of the bathroom assault because they were getting calls from people demanding why they hadn't reported the incident to the media.They said it was complete fiction. 

What was frustrating is how convinced the callers genuinely seemed. That's what sticks with me today. These weren't crazy people. They had families and lives. Their conviction left me with nagging doubt. so despite the denial by the cops, I took one more step to find out the truth.  

I went to the department store and asked two clerks who worked near the infamous bathroom about the alleged incident. 

Asking the clerks was the fastest and most certain route to the truth. For sure, if this had happened, the store clerks must have heard about it. But when I asked, they looked at me like as if I was crazy or dangerous. 

No story was written because there was no story.

Today, there's an entire industry of liars and scam artist who profit off fake news, and get their kicks fueling conspiracy theories supported by fictions, half-truths and outright lies that will nonetheless leave some people convinced of it. What's scary now is just how dangerous this is getting.

Something my father told me over and over again when I was a kid: People will believe anything.

How true is that? It's the foundational truth behind all scams.

Further reading: 

Why people believe conspiracy theories like 'pizza gate', CNN, By Gregory Krieg, Dec. 6, 2016.

Man Motivated by ‘Pizzagate’ Conspiracy Theory Arrested in Washington Gunfire New York Times, by Eric Lipton, Dec. 5, 2016.

The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends, Jan Harold Brunvand, W. W. Norton & Company, 2003 (Mentions ring legend)

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