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8 September 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Was New Orleans flooded to make way for a new Las Vegas...?
Gossip, rumours and conspiracy theories about Katrina are spreading through the Blogosphere.

by Brendan O'Neill

Did you know that the US powers-that-be made the disaster in New Orleans so that they could clear out the blacks and white trash and create a new 'international gambling hotspot' to rival Las Vegas?

No, they didn't make the hurricane itself, silly! That was natural. But they did hinder the rescue operations - by, for example, 'blocking many radio transmissions in the aftermath of the breaks in the levees and the mass flooding which followed' - because they wanted to get shot of 'poor white and black folks' who stood in the way of their 'dream of New Orleans as a new mecca for gambling and tourism'. So officialdom's response to the flooding was not as incompetent as you thought: it was actually designed to push out the population and turn the city over to 'carpetbagger developers who have envisioned a "Las Vegas" style industry in the city' (1).

This is one of the crankier theories about Katrina doing the rounds of the Blogosphere - that self-contained world of blogs written and published by individuals with a modem and an opinion (and sometimes, it would seem, with a crazy gene or two). The above was written by one Patricia A Doyle PhD (PhD in what? How To Cook Up Conspiracies?) and published on 'Real News and Politics!!!' - the three exclamation marks no doubt intended to indicate that this real news is really real, not like the fake news those bastards in power give us!!! On that site you can also read items on 'Ethnic cleansing in New Orleans brought to you by the Bush admin!!!', 'Bush - the antichrist who destroyed America!!!' (that item was reportedly written by a US soldier who has since been threatened with a court martial), and 'No matter how you look at it, it's still murder of poor black people in New Orleans!!!' (2)

Of course, not all bloggers have so starkly taken leave of their senses, and there are still blogs worth browsing. And yet, as bloggers and their fans in the media so tirelessly tell us, the apparently great thing about the Blogosphere is that it doesn't discriminate: anyone can set up a blog, from the millionaire to the man in the street (literally the man in the street in the case of the Homeless Guy Blog). This means that if, as I did, you visit Technorati - the search engine that browses 16.8million blogs - and look for stuff on Katrina, you'll get everything from sensible and interesting comment to unsubstantiated rumours to wild and wacky conspiracies (for extra fun, type in the search request 'Katrina + illuminati').

Post-Katrina, it seems clear that the Blogosphere is not the new font of information or a democratic everyman's media that we've been led to believe it is. Rather, it's the medium through which rumour and prejudice spread fastest today.

So that PhD's thesis about Katrina paving the way for a new Las Vegas may seem, well, mental, but the story that gave rise to this theory - that someone somewhere is blocking radio transmissions in the New Orleans area - is widespread in the Blogosphere. It's worth tracing where this story came from: it has its origins in the traditional media and has since trickled down to the darkest regions of the Blogosphere, becoming wackier as it goes. It started when Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, made a tearful appearance on Meet The Press, the much-respected NBC news show. Broussard broke down in tears as he told the story of an old woman who was assured by her son that someone would come to rescue her. But they didn't and, according to Broussard, the woman drowned (3). His appearance was broadcast around the world.

Broussard also claimed, in passing, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is now overseeing the rescue and clear-up operations in New Orleans, 'came in and cut of all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice'. He didn't say why, or whether other communication lines had also been cut off - yet his claim was enough to get certain bloggers salivating. Some reported that ham radio (that's amateur radio) communications were also being blocked (4). Others asked scary questions: 'Who is jamming communications and why?' (5) One wondered whether this was an attempt by FEMA to 'deliberately sabotage hurricane relief efforts' as part of a 'coordinated campaign to deepen the scope of the disaster in order to force through bumper funding increases for FEMA' (6). And our PhD friend assumed it was part of the effort to build a new Las Vegas on the ruins of New Orleans.

This transformation of one man's tearful outburst on a mainstream show into a conspiracy about federal agencies allowing people to die for their own selfish gain reveals a couple of home truths about the Blogosphere. Firstly, for all the claims that the Blogosphere challenges the media's stranglehold over information and ideas - by allowing anyone to write, produce and publish his own content without needing an editor or publisher - in fact bloggers are parasitical on the media. So the political and comment blogs that are said to be at the forefront of a 'blogging revolution' often do little more than write about and react to articles published in traditional media outlets (or 'the Big Media' as they call it). Likewise, the vast majority of blogs are not offering eye-witness accounts of Katrina to challenge the media's view, but rather are commenting on the media's view, second-hand. Blogs come across less as remaking journalism than as journalism's poor cousin - picking holes in media stories or leeching off them in some other fashion.

Secondly, the Broussard-interview-to-FEMA-as-murderers story highlights the Chinese whispers effect of the Blogosphere. Blogs are celebrated because they don't have pesky editors or sub-editors telling the authors what to say; there's no corporate pressure here or editorial line to toe. Even respected journalists look longingly at this apparent freedom of bloggers to say what they please. Yet this can give rise to a free-for-all that is grating more than enlightening. Blogging is often little more than a subjective spouting match, where bloggers spill forth their views and theories on everything, anything and sometimes nothing of much interest. This can create a white noise of personal prejudice, akin to students arguing in a bar rather than a new kind of journalism: the perfect climate in which cranky theories can flourish and spread.

On the subject of Big Media, it should be noted that many of the post-Katrina rumours spreading around the Blogsphere originated in the media, and were merely made more scary-sounding by some blogger in his bedroom. So, many blogs have obsessed over reports of rape, murder and pillage coming out of New Orleans. One blog, which tags itself, rather worryingly, as 'The musings of a junior doctor: a tortured soul and possibly a disturbed mind', said that Katrina highlighted the 'fragility of civilisation', no less: 'Victims huddling together in shops, rooftops and trees, armed gangs looting, refugee camps becoming scenes of rapes, murder and robbery....' (7). A blog called 'Talking to a wall....online!' described helicopters in New Orleans getting 'shot at by a bunch of jonsing [sic] thugs in need of a drug fix that would like to continue to rape children, rob their fellow man, and murder people for the hell of it' (8).

Another, inexplicably entitled Crusader Bunny Pants, offered an apocalyptic vision of a future Mad Max-style society: 'Imagine an America where everyone is displaced...martial law has been declared with 24-hour curfews...and there are troops on the streets shooting anyone who disobeys their orders.' (9)

It was the mainstream media that first spread rumours about rape, pillage and murder
These rumours of rape and murder - which still remain to be substantiated - first appeared in respectable newspapers and on TV. In the USA, a Washington Times report claimed that 'storm victims are raped and beaten; fights erupt with flying fists, knives and guns; fires are breaking out; corpses litter the streets; and police and rescue helicopters and repeatedly fired on... [We must] restore order and stop the looting, carjackings and gunfire' (10). The British media has also ran reports of rape and murder (but with few eye-witness accounts of such incidents).

Of course, the post-Katrina south is not a tea party, and doubtless there are tensions and perhaps even violence. But as Matt Welch of Reason magazine has argued: 'All along Hurricane Katrina's Evacuation Belt, in cities from Houston to Baton Rouge to Leesville, Louisiana, the exact same rumours are spreading faster than red ants at a picnic.' (11)

Welch points out that despite earlier reports of murder and rioting in Baton Rouge, 'The police confiscated a single knife from a refugee in one Baton Rouge shelter. There were no riots in Baton Rouge. There were no armed hordes'. For all the claims of rapes in the Superdrome in New Orleans - including of children, some of whom were allegedly raped and then murdered - Welch points out that a New Orleans police superintendent has said 'We don't have any substantiated rapes'. The UK Guardian has reported that, 'While many claim [rapes] happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors' relatives have come forward. Nor has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies, been found' (12).

The authorities are now taking desperate measures to disprove rumours. Kevin Davis, president of St Tammany Parish in north New Orleans, issued a statement earlier this week saying: 'Rumours are flying and being repeated occasionally in the media that describe supposed criminal actions in St Tammany Parish. These rumours are NOT true.' The superintendent of New Orleans Police issued a denial that his forces 'stood by while women were raped and people were beaten' (13).

Rumours of hurricane victims raping, robbing and killing one another were first reported in the media, and then spread to the Blogosphere - where they have become even more bizarre and unbelievable. These are rumours that were first whispered by some beleaguered individual in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, reported by the mainstream news, and then re-reported by bloggers wondering what the hell has happened to mankind. For example, one blogger, wringing his hands over the 'horror of rape and murder' in New Orleans, said: 'What's more terrifying - a hurricane, a flood or mankind...?' Your instinct might be to tell him to get a grip and stop being so melodramatic about events that might not even have happened. But then, he is merely saying out loud what has been an undercurrent in the media coverage of Katrina, which has constantly sought out the worst horror stories, even if they aren't substantiated, and presented people as fickle and wicked.

Other bloggers seem capable of viewing Katrina only through their own prejudices and worldview. One piece published in an online magazine and republished on various blogs fumes about Iraq: the author argues that 'the neoconservatives brought these disasters to all Americans', by starting a 'gratuitous war egged on by a clique of crazy neocons who have sacrificed Americans' interests to their insane agenda' (14). Another even suggests that the flooding of New Orleans was a 'Flood for oil' (just as invading Iraq was apparently a 'war for oil'), making some complicated argument about Bush-linked companies standing to gain from the disaster which I can't even be bothered to repeat (15). Again, these arguments have their origins in mainstream discussion, where various politicians and commentators have argued that if America wasn't in Iraq then fewer people would have died as a result of Katrina.

Yet another blogger - a 'porn blogger' - used the opportunity of the hurricane to ask whether it's right to blog about porn at a moment of national catastrophe. Her readers will be pleased to see her conclusion: that 'porn blogging during a disaster is painful, stupid and wrong - but it is also bizarrely right....' (16). Even after Katrina, some bloggers remain remarkably self-reflecting.

For all the cranky stuff, there are other blogs that have offered interesting analyses and even insights into Katrina and its aftermath. And of course, there have always been cranks and there has always been rumour-mongering - especially during a time of crisis and when society seems incapable of offering explanations for what is occurring and why. Rumours tend to fill the gap left by the decline of shared values or a common outlook.

But in the past the cranks would have been talking to three men and a dog at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, and rumours would have spread from person to person, in conversations in pubs or over the garden fence. Today, something like the Blogosphere allows rumours to spread faster and to take on a life of their own. Browsing blogs post-Katrina doesn't offer a snapshot of what's really happening in the south of America, but rather of societies that seem willing to see the worst in their fellow men and to believe the unbelievable. Bloggers might express these sentiments more rashly and irritatingly than others, but they didn't invent this contemporary misanthropy.

Read on:

After Katrina, another putrid deluge, Mick Hume

(1) Developers have 'wanted' New Orleans to be a Las Vegas, Real News and Politics!!!, 6 September 2005

(2) See Real News and Politics!!!

(3) Parish leader weeps for woman left to die, Australian, 6 September 2005

(4) Pentagon may be jamming local emergency radio frequencies, Luddite Scout, 6 September 2005

(5) Who is jamming communications and why?, Wayne Madsen Report, 2 September 2005

(6) FEMA deliberately sabotaging hurricane relief efforts, Real News and Politics!!!, 6 September 2005

(7) Katrina betrays the fragility of civilisation, Vitualis' Medical Rants, 6 September 2005

(8) Hurricanes, Talking to a wall...online!, 6 September 2005

(9) Crusader Bunny Pants, 6 September 2005

(10) SOS from New Orleans, Washington Times, 2 September 2005

(11) The deadly bigotry of low expectations, Matt Welch, Reason, 6 September 2005

(12) Murder and rape - fact or fiction?, Guardian, 6 September 2005

(13) The deadly bigotry of low expectations, Matt Welch, Reason, 6 September 2005

(14) Impeach Bush now, before more die, Counterpunch, 3 September 2005

(15) Dubya's flood for oil!!!, Real News and Politics!!!, 1 September 2005

(16) Porn blogging: a rant, sexblogs, 7 September 2005



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