When speculation has its place
Rohan Jayasekera: Even in the midst of horror, speculation can still have a place
24 Jul 11

Bombarded by media questions in the hours after Friday’s nightmare events in Norway, Oslo’s police simply put their hands up: “We have no main theory, we don’t even have a working theory,” a police official told AFP. “We already have enough to do to get an understanding of the situation.”

But the media couldn’t wait and turned to the experts: Who got it wrong. Among more than a few likeminded pundits, the UK’s Quilliam Foundation put out several tweets linking the attacks to Islamists, a circulating line of argument which eventually led to inaccurate stuff like this.

Will McCants, a former US State Department and West Point expert on “Countering Violent Extremism” drew particular ire. His blog Jihadica cited a claim of responsibility — “Alleged Claim for Oslo Attacks” — from a terror group left on a members-only website favoured by al-Qaida acolytes.

The claim spun swiftly round the mainstream media world, driven largely by McCants’ reputation. He carefully qualified the claim down the line, but not enough to save him from a deal of abuse when the premise was proven flat wrong with the arrest of Anders Behring Breivik hours later.

In a piece for Electronic Intifada on McCants, one that is fairer than its headline suggests — How a clueless “terrorism expert” set media suspicion on Muslims after Oslo horror — Benjamin Doherty warned of the dangers of a quick good guess after grave events.

“The focus of speculation, its amplification through social media, its legitimisation in mainstream media, and the privilege granted to so-called experts is a common pattern,” he wrote.

But as Atlantic Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan says of the internet, “Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy.” You can be right as often as you are wrong. But you are free to be both.

In 1995 The Washington DC based columnist Jim Lobe, a longtime contributor to Inter Press Service (IPS), then a sort of wire service-era version of Global Voices, almost immediately and correctly attributed the Oklahoma bombing to right-wing extremist militias, when the entire US media without exception blamed it on Islamists from the moment the news broke.

IPS and Lobe stood alone in their speculative view for three days until the entire US media had to fall in behind them with the identification of the real killer, Timothy McVeigh.

Lobe’s speculation was based on his long study of right-wing US militias and a personal disinclination to blame Arabs before home grown terrorists. Though he could have been wrong, his “provisional truth” kept minds open to alternative scenarios in a world shocked to the core but starved of facts.

Doherty’s own speculation was that such theorising “adds little knowledge but causes real harm by spreading fear and loathing of Muslims, immigrants and other vulnerable and routinely demonised populations, and whether intentional or not, assigns collective guilt to them.”

I suspect time will prove Doherty’s fears groundless and his speculation wrong. I think Norwegian premier Jens Stoltenberg speaks for all his citizens when he says they must never give up their values. “We must show that our open society can pass this test too,” he said on the day of the horror. “That the answer to violence is even more democracy.”

If as is said, journalism is the first rough draft of history, the web is the place for the first rough thoughts in front of that draft’s first blank page. We need them, both right and wrong.

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.