Biggest myths from the Boston Marathon bombing

From "false flag" paranoia to alleged Saudi ties, the worst fear-mongering to come out of the Boston tragedy

Published April 22, 2013 10:07PM (EDT)


The still-emerging facts of the Boston Marathon bombing case are harrowing enough, but that didn't stop conspiracy theorists, detective-wannabes on the Internet and too-quick-to-the-draw cable news outlets from circulating paranoid, intentionally misleading and otherwise inaccurate reports to feed a frenzied news cycle hungry for information -- accuracy be damned.

From Glenn Beck to John King, a roundup of the very worst coverage on the tragedy in Boston:

Alex Jones and the "false flag" conspiracy 

As Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald previously reported, Alex Jones and others on the conservative fringe wasted no time in launching paranoid theories pinning the Boston tragedy to an elaborate government plot:

While most observers are withholding judgment about what caused the two explosions at the Boston Marathon this afternoon, right-wing conspiracy theorists already know what’s going on — the government did it and is going to pin the blame on them because today is Patriots’ Day, a special day in the militia movement.

Alex Jones, who has become the country’s preeminent conspiracy theorist, wasted no time. As with 9/11, Sandy Hook and other national tragedies, he sees the Boston explosions as a “false flag” attack committed by the government...

On his radio show, Jones speculated that it may have to do with the sudden drop in the price of gold, a favorite commodity of paranoids everywhere. “With gold plunging, what could this signify?” he asked rhetorically. He also noted that Boston has special significance in American history, and because it’s where one of the planes took off from on 9/11. “I said on air that they’re getting ready to blow something up. To fire a shot heard round the world like at Lexington and Concord, and then they do it at this same place on the same day!” he said.

Steve Emerson, Glenn Beck and the Saudi "person of interest" 

Conservative wingnuts began circulating a theory early on that a Saudi national was being held in connection with the bombing and that "the U.S. government planned to quietly deport the Saudi [suspect] in a kind of coverup of the administration’s incompetence and a paean to the Saudi Royal Family," per Salon's conspiracist-in-chief Alex Seitz-Wald:

Terrorism “expert” Steve Emerson, who seems to have an awful lot of gaps in his knowledge of terrorism for an “expert,” first created the narrative on Sean Hannity’s show Wednesday night, and soon Hannity, Glenn Beck, Pamela Geller and even a Republican congressman took it and ran with it. Officials categorically denied the claims yesterday, saying proponents of the rumor were confusing the Saudi questioned after the marathon with a different Saudi national who was being deported on an unrelated matter, and that the first Saudi was never a suspect in the bombing...

Glenn Beck went much further, calling for impeachments over the alleged coverup when he interviewed Emerson this morning, saying the government has “aided and abetted” evildoers. “I don’t bluff,” Beck threatened mysterious forces in Washington who he said were responsible for the coverup. “I make promises. The truth matters. I’ve had enough of what you’ve done to our country. I thought I had heard and seen it all. I thought I didn’t trust my government. Oh no, no, no. There is no depth that these people will not stoop to. They have until Monday and then The Blaze will expose it.”

The New York Post and the "Bag Men" 

After running an image of two marathon observers and strongly implying they were responsible for the bombing despite having zero evidence to support the claim, the New York Post stood by its ridiculous "Bag Men" headline. As Salon's Daniel D'Addario reported on the initial cover story:

The New York Post’s front page today is given over to a photo of two purported suspects in the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

One problem: They’re not actually the suspects.

That’s what CBS’s John Miller stated this morning. CBS News was one of the outlets, unlike CNN, the AP and Fox News, that did not report an arrest during yesterday’s flurry of misinformation; the Post, meanwhile, has been pilloried for its reporting in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, including its claim that 12 had died.

And the Post’s article, coming as it does after a provocative front page that calls the pair “Bag Men” (common slang for a criminal), surprisingly comes short of actually calling the two men suspects. Those readers who choose to parse the Post’s reporting on a crowded subway car will find that the men are in photos (one of a crowd scene) being purportedly circulated by authorities, but “two potential suspects” caught on video who’ve been fingered may or may not even be the same people.

And the subsequent non-apology:

The New York Post’s editor, Col Allan, has issued a statement to Salon about today’s cover storyThat story stated that two men were suspects in the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and was illustrated by a photo reportedly circulated by the FBI of two dark-skinned young men. Though the headline, “Bag Men,” simultaneously pointed out that the young men carried bags and used slang for criminals at once, Allan points out that the story did not state whether or not the two young men were the two suspects (they are not) or how many photos had been circulated by the FBI.

Reddit and missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi

In the chaotic aftermath of the Boston bombing and the frenzied search for suspects, Reddit users learned an important lesson (which they will probably forget by week's end) about the perils of Internet hive mind and Web vigilantism. As reported by Salon's Alex Pareene:

On Reddit, the Tripathi speculation, first limited to a branch of the conversation in the discussion of the FBI’s photos and videos, soon received its own, massive thread. The thread is full of the worst of crowd-sourced message board investigations, from ridiculoustotal certainty (“The facial structure is almost exactly the same”) to incredibly irresponsible mistakes (“Except that isn’t Sunil, it’s his brother”)...

The entire case was based on vague physical resemblance in low-quality photos, bolstered by the fact that one Twitter user claiming to have gone to school with Tripathi said she thought it looked like him. There were dissenting voices in the thread. Tripathi is 6 feet tall. “Suspect two” didn’t look that tall. The suspect’s hair was too long. And most important, the behavior made no sense... It scarcely mattered at that point. The speculation was out there. Various conservative blogs picked it up. Tripathi’s name was suddenly all over Twitter...

Sunil Tripathi is still missing. He did not bomb the Boston Marathon. Reddit and everyone else who ran with the theory that he did effectively did to Tripathi what the Post did to Salah Eddin Barhoum. Only they did it while Tripathi’s family wonders if he’s even still alive.

CNN and the Associated Press' false report that "arrests have been made"

CNN's John King and the Associated Press started a mini-Internet war over Wednesday allegations that a suspect had been arrested in the bombing case. After NBC, CBS and the Boston Globe disputed the report, CNN sent out a retraction and the FBI issued a scathing statement against rapid-fire media speculation:

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Boston bombing suspects also robbed a 7-Eleven 

After a shootout at MIT that ended in the death of a 26-year-old campus police officer and a manhunt that led authorities to the Boston suburb of Watertown, reports started surfacing that the suspects had knocked off a 7-Eleven in Cambridge. Problem is, the incident had nothing to do with them, as USA Today reported:

Margaret Chabris, the director of corporate communication at 7- Eleven, says the surveillance video of the crime was not taken at a 7-Eleven and that the suspect that did rob the 7-Eleven does not look like Tamerlan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

"The suspect in the photos for that particular 7-Eleven robbery looks nothing like the suspects," Chabris says. "The police or someone made a mistake. Someone was confused."

The suspects were at the 7-Eleven around the time of the robbery but they did not rob the store, said State Police Superintendent Timothy Alban at an evening press conference on Friday.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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