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  • Fri, 24, Jul, 2020 - 5:00:AM

When did we trade in basic empathy for conspiracy theories?

Naya Rivera at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con on Glee / Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

When it was announced that former Glee star Naya Rivera had gone missing in Lake Piru on the 8th of July, the Internet erupted in a predictable flurry of emotion and an onslaught of conspiracy theories.

Immediately, thousands of tweets emerged, declaring that “The Glee Curse” was real - a reference to the fact that Naya is the third Glee cast member to die in their early thirties (following Cory Monteith in 2013 and Mark Salling in 2018). People came out with theories that the local authorities were not conducting a proper search and rescue for Naya. The involved departments were flooded with “tips” from fans and “psychics” who apparently knew how to find Naya and the Ventura County sheriff’s department eventually was forced to release a statement asking that people didn’t conduct their own searches, as that would only put more people in danger. Unfortunately, the conspiracy theories didn’t stop when Naya’s body was found, they only accelerated - people claimed that her body had been “moved,” that foul play was involved and that her ex-husband and the father of her child, Ryan Dorsey, had murdered her.

These people didn’t stop to think about how their conspiracy theories would impact Naya’s family and loved ones. They didn’t stop to think about how the “Glee Curse” theory would make other cast members feel. They didn’t stop to think that calling local authorities and demanding they look harder was an unnecessary exhaustion of useful resources in the search.

While I watched these conspiracy theories surrounding Naya’s disappearance and death spread through Twitter like wildfire, morphing into worse and worse iterations as time went by, it struck me that this was by no means an isolated incident. It’s just another upsetting example of how desensitised and overwhelmingly unempathetic the online world is.

The internet is rife with conspiracy theories - theories about tracking devices in vaccines, theories about the hidden romantic relationships in boy bands, theories about underground rings of pedophiles, theories about the “true” cause of every terrorist attack and natural disaster of the last few decades.

And as these theories become more and more widespread, their consequences become more and more significant. Fears surrounding vaccines have led to upsettingly preventable outbreaks of measles. Wild theories about Hilary Clinton’s emails directly contributed to an orange hell-demon being elected into the Oval Office. Even the theories about celebrities’ hidden sexual relationships led to Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson no longer being able to have a normal friendship.

At the same time as local authorities were dealing with the swath of outlandish theories surrounding Naya’s disappearance, conspiracy theorists were bullying Chrissy Teigen into deleting tens of thousands of old tweets and blocking one million people. The conspiracy theory in this case, being peddled by thousands of right-wing twitter accounts, is that Chrissy Teigen and her husband John Legend are secret pedophiles, involved in Jeffrey Epstein’s inner circle of evil. Their “evidence” is all falsified, but the consequences of these beliefs are huge, when a woman can’t post a photo of her own child without thousands of people telling her she’s a deplorable pedophile who deserves to die.

What happened to basic empathy? Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes? Thinking “How would I feel if my loved one was missing or dead and people were saying it was a hoax or a curse or foul play?” Thinking “Maybe there’s no credible evidence that this person is a pedophile and what if she finds death threats upsetting?” Thinking at all?

I understand that at times, the truth can be difficult to accept. I understand the value in questioning the things that powerful people tell us, rather than taking them at face value. But I don’t think those are excuses for the way widespread conspiracy theories have desensitised so many people to human tragedy and eroded away their basic empathy.

Naya Rivera’s disappearance and death was a horrible tragedy. It’s not fair or right, but accidents happen. Sometimes, that’s all there is to it.


  • Conspiracy theories /
  • Naya Rivera /
  • Internet /
  • Chrissy Teigen /
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