Was flight MH370 hijacked by terrorists? Did the pilot kill himself? Or was the whole plane swallowed by a black hole? When Malaysia Airlines reported that they’d lost contact with the Boeing 777 – which departed Kuala Lumpur on March 7th – it didn’t take long for the internet to respond. Uninformed speculation fuelled wild accusations and conspiracy theories, which unfolded in the following days like an erratically-written TV show.
A pilot came forward with the more believable theory of an electrical fire, backed up by a number of situational factors. But the disbelief that an entire plane could simply go ‘off radar’ buffered a frenzied media storm. Psychologists point out that people are inclined to see ambiguous events as the product of someone’s intentions rather than as accidental. And in a technological world, where everything is measurable and transparent, the prospect of a whole plane disappearing along with 239 passengers is unfathomable. As journalist Scott Mayerowitz aptly notes, “there aren’t supposed to be any mysteries in the digital age.”
With so many sources adding their voice to the narrative – from the population of Reddit to Courtney Love – establishing the truth is harder than ever. The World Economic Forum has flagged up this phenomenon as “a global risk of massive digital misinformation which could wreak havoc in the real world.” And there are real victims: consider Sunil Tripathi, the 22-year-old who was falsely accused of orchestrating the Boston bombings by millions of online spectators.” False information is particularly pervasive on social media,” agrees Walter Quattrociocchi of Northeastern University in Boston. “It fosters a sort of collective credulity.”
As the story of flight MH370 continues to unfold before us, fresh speculation won’t be far behind. But it’s worth noting that the amount of shares a theory has won’t always align with how plausible it is. The truth has become a proverbial needle amid a haystack of shrewd, satirical and misinformed voices, but a healthy information diet can make all the difference between understanding and ignorance.