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Russell Wangersky: Separating fact from speculative fiction

tel-web-02102017-wangersky column-123
tel-web-02102017-wangersky column-123

It’s natural to ask. After all, with a Las Vegas shooter leaving more than 50 people dead and more than 400 taken to hospital, the prevailing question is “why?”

Russell Wangersky

Lots of people are looking for that answer.

And the internet, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

So, even if there are few facts about the motivation behind the Las Vegas shooter, there seem to be plenty of people willing to fill the vacuum with any old thing.

The data mining is impressive, though often inaccurate; the goal seems to be to put something new up online next to your own name, regardless of whether it pans out or not. Florida marriage records, Texas property records, Nevada addresses — it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that there might be more than one person with the same name as the shooter.

Pictures are being posted by web posters and by media outlets. There are a series of different faces, only one of them apparently the person alleged to be the shooter.

Meanwhile, the theories are getting wild: that Stephen Paddock was a hostage himself, shot dead to allow the real shooters to escape. Or that Paddock was a shooter, but only one of many shooters — theories abound, based on things as slender as the interpretation of visual analysis of broken windows 32 storeys above the pavement. There’s a picture of his girlfriend on a beach in Dubai, an image that is quickly interpreted as meaning not only that Paddock was there, too, but that the picture is evidence of where and when he became an ISIS supporter and agent.

He’s a hunter, a gambler, a pilot; there’s proof of something spilling out all over the place.

ISIS, always opportunistic, claims Paddock as one of their own — that spreads like wildfire, on both established news and social media sites, even though there isn’t evidence to back it up.

In the wildlands of Reddit computer-chat, still more amateur investigators opine that, because Paddock targeted a country music audience — and because country music lovers apparently tilt more towards the right — Paddock is a left-wing dissident trying to start a new American civil war.

Fake news sites appear, including one that claims to be an anti-fascist, or Antifa, organization, taking credit for the attack. Just like the ISIS message, the fake Antifa site spread like wildfire.

On Twitter again, there are hot-take psychiatric assessments of Paddock — some suggest repressed white rage, others draw a connection to a serial bank robber, apparently diagnosed as psychopathic, who may or may not be Paddock’s father.

Some post about gun control — still others argue back that Britain has gun control, and that didn’t stop the shootout at Ariana Grande’s concert (only the weapon at the Grande concert wasn’t actually a gun — it was a bomb blast).

There are already people saying the whole Las Vegas attack was a hoax. Sigh.

Think what you want about the process used by the mainstream media.

But this is no replacement.

This is a hot sloppy mess.

I’m going to suggest a new rule; you can call it Russell’s Rule if you want.

Wait 48 hours to make up your mind about what the facts really are. Read widely, and use trusted sources — knowing that, in the heat of the moment, even your most trusted sources may get things wrong. They, at least, will correct their mistakes.

The problem is what happens when you accept the first version that best suits your beliefs, and then never go back to the issue again.

First drafts are sloppy and often inaccurate; even 24 hours is not enough for the gold to sink to the bottom of the pan, and the rest to wash away.

Just don’t make up your mind right away.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.    

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