A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, the same plane used for Flight MH370 (photo via)
Sometimes planes crash. But in a post-9/11 world, that story isn’t quite interesting enough. We can't just report that Flight MH370 crashed and we don’t know where or why yet; instead, we have to be able to relay the plot of exactly what happened, using whatever scraps of information we can find.
Sprawling news organisations struggle to feed 24-hour news channels and rolling liveblogs with the meagre rations available, each morsel sniffed and inspected and toyed with hour-after-hour until every last drop of flavour has been extracted from it. And when the facts run out, you can always rely on the efforts of experts-cum-story-tellers, spinning yarns from the thinnest and most fragile of evidence.
The Boeing 777 is the nearest thing to real magic that most of us will experience in our lifetimes. It contains three million parts from 500 suppliers, working in perfect harmony for millions upon millions of miles, maintaining a safety record any car manufacturer would kill for. To call it a miracle would be an insult to the skill and effort of the thousands of engineers responsible for building the craft, but each time one of these contraptions makes a successful flight it should be hailed as an extraordinary achievement.
It’s a testament to how safe modern planes are – and how skewed our sense of risk is – that a single crash has generated more headlines than the nearly 2,000 people who died on Britain’s roads last year. The loss of Flight MH370 is undoubtedly a tragedy and an utterly horrible thing for the passengers and their families to go through. But how many lives are lost and how many families are affected each day in accidents involving cars, motorbikes and bicycles?
That’s not the only thing the press have failed to comprehend in their race to build stories and attract readers. Probably the most damaging misunderstanding has been around the stolen passport story, which has been used in the last three days to build an absurd "terrorism" narrative around the disaster on the basis of basically zero evidence whatsoever.
Two passports used on the flight were discovered to have been lost or stolen, suggesting the passengers were travelling under false IDs. That, along with the large Muslim population in the region, was enough to prompt theories about the disappearance being related to terrorism, and for the Telegraph to talk about a "terror fear" – the ultimate combination of fear and terror – over "mystery passengers".
Even as Interpol confirmed that two passports used on the flight matched records in its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (STLD) database, they also pointed out that up to 40 million IDs could be in circulation, and that checks in most countries were so lax that “passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases”.
It turns out that bogus passports are surprisingly common, but even if they weren’t, do terrorists generally even use stolen passports? The 9/11 hijackers didn’t.
However, none of that stopped the media from clinging doggedly to their narrative. By Tuesday, "air security expert" Philip Baum, appearing in the Daily Mail, had pieced together – albeit hypothetically – a scheme that had the East Turkestan Islamic Movement at the heart of a militant plot to down the aircraft. “Could it be that ETIM, having failed to gain international publicity through its domestic attacks, has decided to go international?” If so, they’re keeping pretty bloody quiet about it.
One of the more ludicrous theories was the accusation, promoted by the Mail, that 20 employees from the semi-conductor firm Freescale lost on the flight were involved in some kind of electronic warfare experiment. “This could include ‘cloaking’ technology that uses a hexagonal array of glasslike panels to bend light around an object, such as a plane, according to a report in Beforeitsnews.com,” the paper speculated, neglecting to mention that other stories on the site include gems like, “Alien Technology Discovered in Man’s Tooth?!”
At the farthest end of the making-shit-up spectrum sits Mike “Health Ranger” Adams, the author of Natural News – a site that specialises in peddling bullshit quackery to anyone dumb enough to take the link bait plastered up on Facebook. Slate’s Brian Palmer observed recently that Adams has become adept at exploiting the social network, with “an uncanny ability to move sophisticated readers from harmless dietary balderdash to medical quackery to anti-government zealotry”. Natural News has its own take on Facebook: “Worse than meth: Facebook is altering your mind and turning you into a slave” – which sounds like something Susan Greenfield might say when she’s drunk. Natural News posts on Facebook probably won’t enslave you, but they may make you an idiot.
Adams has his own theory about Flight 370, if you can call six brain-farts and a non-sequitur a "theory". As with most conspiracy theories, it takes a series of barely-connected, context-deprived "facts" – drawn largely from the observer’s own ignorance – and adds a strong dose of paranoid finger pointing, but fails to draw any sort of cohesive framework together to hang a plausible story on.
To the pseudo-religious mind of the conspiracy theorist, the failure to find the black box or floating debris after four days isn’t simply a sign of how difficult it is to find a tiny box in a vast deep sea (the flight recorder on Air France flight 447 took two years to locate), but evidence of dark, mysterious forces at work.
“If we never find the debris, it means some entirely new, mysterious and powerful force is at work on our planet, which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence,” Adams postulated. “If there does exist a weapon with such capabilities, whoever controls it already has the ability to dominate all of Earth's nations with a fearsome military weapon of unimaginable power. “
It’s easy to mock internet conspiracy theorists, but what they’re doing isn’t that far removed from the psychology at play in the mainstream media. They’re all filling the vacuum with their own stories; it’s just that some restrict their stories to slightly more plausible territory. There’s just as little evidence for a terrorist attack as there is for a missile strike, and both stories have been built around the idea of a monster under a bed. For conspiracy theorists, it’s the US government or the New World Order; for the Daily Mail, it’s Muslim extremists with scary-sounding names.
The whole scenario sounds almost religious, and perhaps, in a way, it is. It all seems to come back to a deep-seated need for somebody – some unseen hand – to be in control of events. As David Aaronovitch pointed out in Voodoo Histories, the alternative is, in many ways, more frightening – that the universe doesn’t really care whether we live or die, that it has no respect for the narratives we build around our lives and that death can simply just happen, random and unplanned.
The irony is that, buried in this avalanche of speculation, there are some really interesting stories that have been largely ignored. How is it, for example, that for all the supposed increases in airline security in the wake of 9/11, checks at airports are so bad that people with stolen passports can apparently travel at will? And why is it that in an era of high speed 4G broadband, when 40-year-old technology can transmit data back from beyond the edge of the solar system, we still have to send ships and divers to retrieve data from a plane, rather than simply transmitting it in real time?
To me, these questions – and others – are far more interesting than invisible Muslim militant groups or government laser beams.
MORE FROM VICE – Cutting Through Even More Bullshit Surrounding Flight MH370