“MIT Professor Exposes ‘Egregious Error’ & Evidence Tampering in US Report on Syria Sarin Incident.” Pretty good headline, right? You’ve got a qualified expert from a prestigious university, discussing verifiable facts; even if you’re a born skeptic, you’re going to head into that news story with at least a crumb of trust in its accuracy. Maybe, you think, this expert knows something everybody else missed about April’s chemical-weapons attack in a rebel-held part of Syria—the one many nations accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of having ordered. But in this case, at least, that trust would be misplaced.
Part of the issue is the media outlet that ran the story. RT is a state-funded Russian propaganda outlet that, like its mother country, openly backs Assad. But the second issue is harder to spot: The MIT professor in question, Theodore Postol, isn’t a sarin gas chemistry expert. He’s not even a chemist. The chemical evidence he presented to RT was came from pro-Assad YouTuber and Infowars contributor Maram Susli. And while Postol has freely admitted that the (debunked) science he cites is not his alone, the fact the he’s serving as the mouthpiece is no coincidence. (Postol did not respond to our request for comment.)
In some neighborhoods of the internet, all it takes to start a conspiracy theory is Photoshop, a webcam, and confidence. Susli—aka PartisanGirl—has thrived in that environment, parlaying a college chemistry degree and a series of conspiracy-minded YouTube videos into a new kind of internet authority. But when conspiratorial musings bubble up into the mainstream web or cable news, it’s not because Don Lemon or Ashleigh Banfield took PartisanGirl seriously. To make it in the major leagues, a conspiracy theory—or any other kind of hoax—has to find a voice with a mainstream claim to credibility. A voice like Postol’s.