Was JFK’s assassination plotted by the C.I.A.? Do masks not help to prevent the transmission of COVID-19? Was 9/11 an inside job by the U.S. government? Are the Jesuits plotting a New World Order?
Through the course of history, rumors like these have resulted in explanatory theories involving secrecy and malicious plots. As a result, many people began doubting the information released by experts, public officials and mainstream media.
On Tuesday October 13, the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership and the Communication and Media Department of Saint Peter’s hosted a virtual panel discussion on modern-world conspiracies and ways to tackle fake news in the media.
The discussion was led by Noah Rauch, Senior Vice President for Education and Public Programs at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, 1010 WINS Reporter John Montone and Dr. Donovan. Serving as moderator was Associate Professor Dr. Philip Plotch from the Political Science Department.
The panel discussed how people throughout history have hesitated to believe the widely accepted narratives of events, choosing instead to seek out alternative answers that claim to reveal a secret plot.
Rauch talked about the amount of uncertainties that arose because of the gravity of 9/11 and its full narrative, with many theories arising from “riddler paradoxes” as supposed predictions of the attacks prior to them happening.
“There were a lot of different theories –often conflicting– that led to a lot of communities of people speaking to each other, building on each other — and not necessarily in a linear way — but people trying to explain something that seemed beyond explanation.” said Rauch.
When discussing the September 11 attacks, Montone recounted his own experience near ground zero, remembering the scene as a “warzone.” He recalled looking up into the sky and watching chunks of dark gray ash falling as the buildings disintegrated.
While interviewing as many people as he could, he headed towards the base of the South Tower until a Century 21 store doorman told him to not get too close because a lot of “stuff” was falling, not realizing it was people jumping from the buildings to escape the flames.
“I looked up and I could see what was left, the body of the jetliner embedded in the South Tower,” he said. “So, if anyone ever wants to tell me a jetliner did not hit the South Tower… doesn’t work, cause it did.”
Dr. Barna Donovan, a professor from the Communications and Media Department at Saint Peter’s University, has been recognized nationally for his research on conspiracy theorizing in American culture, especially in today’s role of social media and internet access. He says his hopes are for students, educators and all people to become more discerning of the information they consume in the media.
Donovan remarked on the cultural significance of conspiracy theories and alternative sources since 9/11, describing the reasoning as an “intellectual free-for-all” and the danger it holds of defending the right to believe whatever they want.
After discussing Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement of banning Facebook pages denying the Holocaust, the panelists were questioned about whether the public will deny the truths of similar events through history. They concluded that the amount of distrust and bias towards institutions is greatly concerning.
They said it is everyone’s responsibility to seek out the truth using credible sources and to use their personal judgement in deciding whether to accept presented facts.
As the panelists spoke, many in the audience continued to remain skeptical and disagree with the facts asserted in the discourse. Even though the event targeted Saint Peter’s students and staff as the intended audience, many people from outside of the school were also tuned in to the conference.
A few days after the event, an alternative media source called The State of the Nation released a statement from a witness alleging that Donovan used his Saint Peter’s platform to push an “Anti-Truth Conference.” The witness said the event revealed a “dangerous Jesuit conspiracy” and accused Donovan of indoctrinating students into avoiding the word “alternative.”
In an email, Donovan stated that webpages like the State of the Nation commonly publish articles that contain anti-semitism and attempt to intimidate critics of conspiracy theories. He said that sites like these use unsubstantiated rumors and allegations of the world being run by hidden forces of evil, like international cabals of Jewish bankers and societies like the Jesuits.
Donovan said that students in all universities should be aware of subcultures that base their platforms off of lies and manipulations, and that bigotry and hatred should never be tolerated at educational institutes or in other educational settings.
“More than anything, they should challenge, speak up against, and reject conspiratorial claims founded in hate and intolerance of any kind,” he said.