Jonathan Vankin has a theory
about why the media blame the messenger
by Theresa Regli
"The Net" supplement, Spring 1997
The World Wide Web, with its innumerable pathways from one piece of information to another, is a conspiracy theorist's dream. No one can access the Web without linking to everything or everyone else; and once you're connected, millions of things can be going on around you that you know nothing about. And, since the Internet was originally invented as a tool for the US Defense Department, who knows what the government has been keeping tabs on all this time?
That, at least, is the question some conspiracy theorists ask. Conspiracy has been getting a lot of attention recently, even more than it did when the X-Files first hit it big a couple of years ago. Conspiracy is a cornerstone of what's been dubbed the "millennial culture," which much of the mainstream media claims is a result not only of the of the approach of the year 2000, but also of the widespread use of the Internet -- where everyone from Marshall Applewhite to Ted Turner can spread doomsday news far and wide.
ABC News may not report facts that support the theory that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by friendly fire, but any ABC viewer can go online and publicize any information he's garnered (or fabricated) to prove it. Since no one is regulating Internet content, who's going to stop him?
The absence of traditional publishing controls is one reason conspiracy is such a popular topic online -- no matter how outlandish your idea, no matter whom you may think is involved, this is the forum where you can present news to the wider world without being censored, without being screened by an editor, and without worrying about market forces or profits. Every conspiracy theory ever dreamed up is on someone's Web site -- from conjectures about who shot JFK to how the government holds back the truth about UFOs.
The March 14 edition of CNN's Crossfire was dedicated to America's obsession with conspiracy. One of the show's opening voiceovers proclaimed: "Who fired the missile that brought down TWA Flight 800? What? You don't believe it? That's just the latest of the wild conspiracy theories that are keeping Americans glued to the Internet these days. Come on. Admit it. You really know who killed Vince Foster? How do you know it wasn't Hillary? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Or was it the Mafia? Who paid James Earl Ray to assassinate Martin Luther King? Conspiracy! Conspiracy!"
Indeed, while CNN is one of many media outlets guilty of overdramatizing the social dangers of the Internet, it's true that conspiracy is one of the topics that keeps people glued to their computers.
One of the panelists on Crossfire that evening was Boston-based writer and Internet researcher Jonathan Vankin, co-author of The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (Citadel, 1996) and engineer of one of the Internet's largest and most comprehensive conspiracy websites, http://www.conspire.com/. He was asked to appear on the panel after he wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about the TWA friendly-fire theory and how it spread over the Internet. Since then, Vankin has appeared on Crossfire and other CNN news programs numerous times, seemingly as their newly adopted specialist on all things bizarre online.
Vankin, 34, was working as an editor at the weekly San Jose Metro when he completed his first book, Conspiracies, Cover-Ups, and Crimes (Paragon, 1991). It was there that he met fellow editor and writer John Whalen, with whom he collaborated to write the first edition of his second book, The 50 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (which he actually finished while working for an English-language newspaper in Japan). The book came out in early 1995, when the World Wide Web was just starting to erupt into the mainstream.
Vankin, who was originally interested in producing a CD-ROM about the book, saw that the Web had potential for promoting a book of this nature.
"We knew the publisher wasn't going to put a lot of money into promoting the book, and we knew the Web would be the perfect place to promote it," Vankin explains over lunch following his latest appearance on Crossfire. "Conspiracy theories lend themselves to a multimedia approach -- the whole idea that everything's connected and that everything's weaving together. We wanted to do the definitive conspiracy website where we'd have a lot more editorial freedom, even than in the book."
Like many Web designers and engineers, Vankin taught himself HTML and Java, and the effort was well worth it: these days his website gets nearly 15,000 unique visitors weekly.
"There weren't really that many other sites like it," Vankin explains, "and we wanted to appeal to people who were into conspiracies as believers and just those who were into it from a more intellectual standpoint."
Vankin's site does appeal to both sorts, and he receives so much e-mail that he doesn't have the time to reply to it all -- which upsets some users. Much of it is from people with a pet conspiracy theory, or occasionally people who talk about their UFO experiences. As Vankin sees it, his website inspires a feeling of kinship, at least in some people.
"Whenever you take an alternative point of view, you're usually shut out by the mainstream media, and those people feel especially alienated," Vankin explains. "So when they see someone has a website about this or is writing about this they immediately feel some sort of connection. They really feel like they can talk to you."
Vankin attributes the widespread interest in conspiracy theories over the past few years to a number of factors.
"I wouldn't say the level of interest has gone up," he says. "It's just that it's gotten more exposure. It's always been out there in this country -- a lot of people who take a conspiratorial view of things. But there's never been any voice, any way to get your message out, no way to connect to other people. Until now."
Vankin explains that the Internet has a leveling effect, giving everyone an equal voice, and allowing each person to determine what information is important. This, he claims, explains why the mainstream media are so scared of the Internet -- it breaks the monopoly on the dissemination of information.
The media reaction to the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in late March was a perfect example. When it was discovered that members of the cult were Web designers, the immediate reaction on CNN was: "Internet Cult! How did the Web contribute to the Heaven's Gate mass suicide?"
Vankin appeared on Crossfire the following evening, and as John Sununu and Geraldine Ferraro attempted to talk him into placing at least part of the blame on the Internet, Vankin stood firm.
"Blaming the Internet for people's own personalities, I think, is just scapegoating a technology," he shot back at them. "I think any new information medium, any new technology usually gets blamed for whatever society's ills happen to be at the moment. I think that's what we're seeing here with the Internet."
Vankin received similar treatment on Crossfire after the TWA friendly-fire theory spread online. Surely, the mainstream media seem to assume, the absurd notion of the Navy conspiring to hold back the truth about this tragedy could have spread only on the Internet.
"It's fear of what they don't understand," Vankin explains. "Who runs the government and the media? It tends to be wealthy, middle-aged white men. . . . That's a generalization, but it sort of holds true. In general, people in that demographic group are not as amenable. They find technology befuddling. . . . Most corporate executives don't do things for themselves, so they don't understand the process, and they don't understand the technology. And that gives them a sense of loss of control."
Vankin doesn't fit the conspiracy-kook profile that a lot of those execs expect. He's a very composed, easygoing kind of guy, which, he says, occasionally works against him when it comes to being interviewed for TV news reports.
A few months ago, when the TWA friendly-fire theory was regaining the TV news spotlight because of new evidence being posted on the Internet, the CBS Evening News came to his apartment and interviewed him for more than an hour.
"I ended up on the cutting-room floor," he says, with an air of exasperation. "The only people in the piece were the government investigators. What is that? They're just presenting the government's point of view. That's just propaganda."
The network, he says, told him his comments were cut "because of time. That's what they always say. But the fact that they didn't have anyone presenting their non-governmental point of view in their report -- that's pretty telling."
What's even more interesting is that Vankin says he never claimed that the plane was shot down. He mentioned that he thought the theory should be looked at with a little less condescension on the part of the government investigators, and that just because it came from the Internet doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't true.
Ten years ago, had this sort of incident happened, Vankin wouldn't have had such a conveniently accessible alternate means to disseminate his views on the TWA incident or other conspiracy theories.
"There's always been some group of people that want to control information," Vankin says. "Always. And when a new technology comes along that is making information more accessible to the public, it's treated the same way. It's just like the monks when the printing press was invented. Until then, they were the only ones who read books."
And the beauty of the Internet, Vankin asserts, is that it gives all people access to whatever information they want -- which is clearly a lot more than the mainstream media are giving them.