The story is the fact that the plane has disappeared—and what a terrible mismatch that is for the way the news cycle, social media and the human brain work, writes Craig Silverman. There is nothing to train a live camera on, tweet in real-time or crowdsource. 

By Craig Silverman

Did you hear?

A piece of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was spotted by the Vietnamese Navy. The plane made an emergency landing in Nanning, China. It may be in North Korea. Or taken over by Iranian terrorists. No, it just completely vanished.

If you want to know how much people are thinking and obsessing about a story, just count the rumors labeled as reporting, the baseless “expert” punditry, and the conspiracy theories it inspires. By that measure, the missing jet is occupying more of our collective consciousness than any other story in the world right now. (Take that, Putin.)

It’s a global story due to the fact that it connects so many countries thanks to the departure and destination locations, and all of the nationalities represented by passengers and its flight path.

The insatiable desire for information is partly because the situation is so mysterious. Couple that with the fact that the flow of new, credible details comes in the form of a drip rather than a firehose. Now mix it all together with fears of terrorism and airplane crashes and you have a perfect recipe for rumor and conspiracy theories. (There is something about air crashes, in particular, that brings out the worst in conspiracy theories.)

A major factor driving speculation is that the central character is missing. The story is the fact that the plane is gone. There is nothing to train a live camera on, to tweet in real-time, or crowdsource.

This story is about something that has disappeared—and what a terrible mismatch that is for the way the news cycle, social media and the human brain work.

The result, along with all of the above mentioned rumors that make their way into the press, is that you get segments like this one on CNN, where experts are trotted out fill airtime by speculating (emphasis mine):

RICHARD QUEST, CNN: … So, many questions, none of which, frankly, we’re going to be able to answer for you tonight. But many questions are raised by this new development. For instance, not least, how can a plane go like this and no one notices it’s off flight plan?

The former director general of IATA says he finds it incredible that fighter jets were not scrambled as soon as the aircraft went off course.I asked Giovanni Bisignani for his gut feeling about what happened to the plane.

GIOVANNI BISIGNANI, FORMER DIRECTOR GENERAL, IATA: It is difficult to imagine a problem in a structure failure of the plane. The Boeing 777 is a modern plane, so it’s not the case. It’s not a problem of a technical problem to an engine because in that case, the pilot has perfectly time to address this and to inform the air traffic control.

We have no answers for you, so let’s bring in someone who also has no answers or new information, but has a credential that seems relevant. Let’s get a “gut feeling” because we have nothing else.

To continue reading this article, please go to Poynter where it was originally published. It was republished here with the author's permission. 


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.