NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Within minutes of the Christmas Day bombing that blew apart several buildings in downtown Nashville, conspiracy theories surfaced online tying the attack to familiar, debunked claims of voter fraud and the rise of the 5G mobile network.
Law enforcement is still investigating the case – the potential motivation of bomber Anthony Quinn Warner remains elusive. During the wait for details, online theories spread to fill the vacuum. It’s a familiar pattern, said Geoff Dancy, a political science professor at Tulane University.
“Uncertainty is simply unacceptable to conspiracy theorists,” said Dancy, who taught a course on conspiracy theories. “What conspiracy theorists offer is certainty and speed.”
Dancy said conspiracy theorists quickly mobilize to fill information voids by latching on to an existing theory and tying it to a breaking news event. That happened in Nashville when long-simmering claims of voter fraud driven by President Donald Trump were erroneously linked to the explosion.
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Conspiracy theorists said the AT&T building near the blast site housed tainted voting machines. That false claim was quickly denounced by company spokespeople, and multiple news outlets confirmed the theory was not true.
Dancy said public officials seeking to dampen the power of conspiracy theories should openly acknowledge uncertainty during emergencies and investigations.
“Stick to the evidence,” Dancy said. “You have to be very honest about what you know and what you don’t know.”
Agents investigating 5G theories as case continues
Federal agents are investigating the possibility the attack might have been connected to a conspiracy claim that new 5G cellular network is related to the spread of COVID-19. That claim is false – scientists and medical professionals say COVID-19 is spread by infectious particles expelled when people breathe.
Authorities said they are aware of multiple online conspiratheories and were pursuing every lead in the case. Investigators have not confirmed any information about a motive in the Nashville bombing.
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The 5G network is the latest generation of wireless technology. It allows users to download data at much faster rates, and has expanded across the country. There is evidence some telecommunication sites in Tennessee were vandalized earlier in the year because of 5G concerns.
Three Department of Safety emergency communication towers in East Tennessee were vandalized in 2020. Safety Commissioner Jeff Long linked that vandalism, and damage to cell towers in Memphis, to the 5G theory.
Tennessee Department of Safety spokesperson Wes Moster said the vandalism is still under investigation. He said the nature of the destruction to the Memphis towers, in particular, matched patterns in other states where 5G-related vandalism was reported.
“It is suspected that 5G conspiracy theories may have played a role because of similar activity in other states,” Moster said.
‘It’s hard to know how to deal with it’
Nashville At-Large Council member Bob Mendes said the conspiracy theories surrounding the downtown explosion are a reflection of an “unusual” time in U.S. history. Mendes tied Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories to the latest wave of distrust in government and official sources.
“I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are conspiracy theories about this suicide bombing too,” Mendes said.
“The conditions that created this environment are national and it’s hard to know how to deal with it,” Mendes added. “I trust that Metro will continue to tell Nashville the truth about what happened. That might be the best we can do.”
Dancy advised starting conversations with conspiracy theorists from an empathetic place. He said discussing evidence and sourcing was a more constructive approach than arguing.
“What people are using this for is as a balm,” Dancy said, noting that people turn to conspiracy theories “to create order” and stability amid turmoil.
Follow reporter Adam Tamburin on Twitter @tamburintweets.
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