Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, apparently shot down over the Ukraine last week, has fueled a variety of conspiracy theories. Most events producing conspiracy theories have important social and political implications, and shooting down a commercial airliner over a war zone (presumably by accident) certainly qualifies.
Any international tragedy can fuel these sorts of rumors, but the circumstances of this incident made it ripe for conspiracy believers. Truth is often the first casualty of war, and this case is no exception. Getting accurate information about why a plane goes down can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and piecing together the chain of events to identify a cause can be a years-long, painstaking process.
First news reports about any tragedy or disaster are invariably the least accurate, and in the absence of reliable information, rumors and myths proliferate. For example, Yahoo News said a "pro-rebel website Russkaya Vesna on Friday quoted [pro-Russia rebel commander] Igor Girkin as saying he was told by people at the crash site that 'a significant number of the bodies weren't fresh,' adding that he was told they were drained of blood and reeked of decomposition."
No reliable news agency has confirmed the third-hand rumor that the plane victims were attacked by vampires.
It's interesting to note that missing and crashed aircraft have long been a staple of conspiracy theories, dating as far back as 1937 with the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, who was variously claimed to have been a Japanese spy, captured alive, or have faked her death. TWA Flight 800 crashed in 1996, but conspiracies about the cause have continued to circulate, including in a documentary film released last year.
And, of course, doomed airplanes are closely connected to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which claim everything: that no airplanes actually struck the Twin Towers and that the damage done by the planes could not have brought the buildings down.
Some have suggested that the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down by Israel as a way to divert attention from their recent bombing of the Gaza Strip. The conspiracy theme of a catastrophic event serving as a planned distraction is common. When President Bill Clinton ordered military bombings in Sudan and Iraq in 1998, some critics claimed that they were merely a deadly smokescreen to divert the American public's attention from his impending impeachment proceedings.
Others think it's a "false flag" event, a tragedy calculated to wrongly malign or blame an entity for political gain.
As a reporter for The Raw Story notes, "Assembling a collection of newspaper headlines, out of context quotes, and rumors of unsourced tweets, analysts and correspondents for [conspiracy theorist] Alex Jones' Info Wars have cast doubt upon the evolving consensus that Russian separatists in the Ukraine shot down flight MH17, explaining that the downing of the flight is a 'false flag,' designed to foment an international war in the region... . Comparing the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner to the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War, Info Wars... explained that the international media is indulging in 'yellow journalism.'"
Why would the United States want to start a war with Russia? The textbook conspiracy answer is to get ahold of its natural resources, including oil and gas. In fact, that was one of the reasons why the United States was accused by some conspiracy theorists of causing the January 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti and killed at least 100,000 people using the "weather controlling," earthquake-inducing HAARP technologies. (Never mind the fact that an all-out war with Russia --possibly including nuclear strikes -- would be far more costly to the United States than whatever natural resources it might gain.) Others suggested that the attack was instead an assassination attempt on President Vladimir Putin.
And it's not just the classic tinfoil hat crowd; no less an influential person than the president of the United States has suggested that someone is "trying to hide" important facts about the plane's destruction. CBS News reported that
President Obama offered a stern warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he must convince separatists in eastern Ukraine to allow international investigators full and unimpeded access to the site of the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The president condemned the Russian-backed rebels for removing bodies and evidence from the scene and threatening international investigators who have tried to access the wreckage, calling it 'an insult to those who have lost loved ones.... All of this begs the question: what exactly are they trying to hide?' Mr. Obama said at the White House Monday."
The fact that this was the second Malaysian Airlines plane to be lost (after the still-missing Malaysian Flight 370 veered off course soon after it left Kuala Lumpur in March) was not lost on the public. While some chalked it up to bad luck or coincidence, others saw some sinister connection.
Most events producing conspiracy theories have important social and political implications, and shooting down a commercial airliner (presumably by accident) certainly qualifies. Anti-Obama commenters have used the event as an opportunity to revisit real and perceived grievances and cover-ups, including the Benghazi attack, Edward Snowden's spying disclosures, the IRS targeting groups for audits and much more.
Floating wild conspiracy theories without a shred of evidence is a ghoulish parlor game for many people, especially online. After nearly every tragedy -- from the September 1, 2001 terrorist attacks to Princess Diana's death -- black humor soon surfaces in the form of tasteless jokes, and these theories aren't much different.
Even those who circulate these rumors surely don't believe all or even most of them; after all, the destruction of the plane cannot have been the work of the United States and Russia and Israel.
Still, research has shown that conspiracy theorists have no trouble holding onto completely contradictory beliefs -- so they don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.