Sep­a­rat­ing fact from spec­u­la­tive fic­tion

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky East­ern Pas­sages Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 35 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetele­ — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

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?”

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 left­wing 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.

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