I initially wanted to discuss the fandom that has sprung up around Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the conspiracy theories about Dzhokhar, mostly scenarios that involve him having been framed. As I wrote, it became clear to me this needed to be a section on its own. The fandom is important to any discussion of conspiracy theory in the Boston bombings, but the girls in the fandom are not actual creators of theory. They just share what is already out there. I want to discuss them because I think that they are a subset of conspiracy theory in general – a mini moral panic, and a misrepresented one at that. Also I initially thought these girls were a bellwether of sorts, a case study of what happens when we don’t teach our young people how to tell a good source from bad, how to research claims people make, and how to engage in independent thought without leaving the realm of reason.
While I still think we can see some failures in how we teach young people to process data, I also think this particular fandom has been blown up by the media into just another excuse to clutch pearls, declaiming These Kids Today. A few articles about the Free Jahar fandom are even-handed but the bulk focus on the teen crush angle, insinuating that all the people online who are concerned about the “evidence” against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are just angst-filled teeny-boppers. I also think a lot of the discussion about this topic is click bait, an easy way to draw people who want to gawk at the salaciousness of young women lusting after a suspected killer, dun dun DUN! (Please note that Jahar is an anglicized spelling of Dzhokhar.)
However, before I talk about the girls who make up the group/fandom that so many media venues have mocked, I want to make a distinction. There are “Free Jahar” groups that do not focus on the relative attractiveness of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and it is my belief that many articles bashing the “Free Jaharists” as silly, love-struck girls have mixed the more serious groups in to make the fandom group seem larger. A few hundred girls on Tumblr acting like teenage girls often do isn’t newsworthy. Fifteen thousand girls mooning over a suspected bomber and spreading wretched conspiracy theory is marginally more newsworthy. But from all the reading I have done (and thank me later for taking that hit – I should subtitle this blog “I read this crap so you don’t have to!”), the girls who spawned the Gawker article that got this ball rolling are entirely different from the larger groups they have been lumped into.
Early articles discussing the “Jihotties” reference a large Facebook group that was later shut down. There is a current, private Free Jahar Facebook that has almost 15,000 members, and from what I have gathered, this is a continuation of the Facebook community that got shut down, reforming after the dust settled. I joined this community and read a lot of the status updates there and this community is definitely not a fandom, nor is it steeped in conspiracy theory, though potential conspiracy is discussed. There are no sighs about how cute Dzhohkar is and the bulk of the community maintain a reasonably intelligent discussion level, though there are a few odd drawings of Dzhokhar and someone posted an article about psychic predictions of the Boston bombing. A few people post new pictures they find of Dzhokhar, but none of the sillier elements to this Facebook group are the focus of the group. Yet I think that this group is used to plump up the numbers in reports of the infinitely more interesting, media-wise, fandom. A fandom is far easier to mock and to dismiss than collectives of mostly young people who think there are serious problems with the case against Dzhokhar. (ETA: And an hour after I posted this entry I see a post wherein someone touts a paranoid and lunatic video wherein some gubernatorial candidate in Nevada is convinced DHS staged the Boston Marathon bombing. I have no idea what I was thinking, assuming that any place was safe from the gut punch of bad conspiracy theory. I’m sure within minutes someone will post a cuddly picture of Jahar, but for a brief few days, there was a place wherein people were discussing problems in the case against Dzhokhar intelligently. I take some comfort in that very few people have responded to it, either by comments or by likes – some very small comfort. But they aren’t behaving like a fandom so my original analysis still stands in that regard. )
From what I have read, I would be very surprised if there are more than a thousand girls in the Free Jahar fandom. The largest open group of the sorts of “Free Jaharists” sensationalized on Gawker I can find is a Facebook group with around 600 members. FreeJahar on Twitter has around 1,800 followers. The other names on Twitter associated with the Justice for Dzhokhar “movement” have substantially fewer followers. Troy Crossley, an aspiring rapper, who was once friends with Dzhokhar and who is vocal in his support for his friend, has over 15,000 followers. Troy’s account, however, pre-dates the Boston bombing attack and I have no way of knowing how many followers he had before April 19. None of the actual “Justice for Jahar” Twitter accounts even come close to having the number of followers Troy has. But for the sake of argument, let’s lump all the serious groups in with the fandoms. Even if every single Troy Crossley follower, lurid Dzhokhar Tumblr user and member of the largest Free Jahar Facebook account are unique users and are representative of the love-sick fandom mocked in the mainstream press, the Free Jahar movement is still very, very small. All combined, they would represent .01% of Americans and it must be stated that these groups are international. There may very well be more people in the world who think the Earth is flat and think that the Cottingley Fairies were real. Continue reading