Two years have passed and Martin Dolan still loses sleep over it. Dolan, the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, says “there’s always this question: Have we missed something? That’s the sort of thing that will occasionally keep me awake at night… we were ready for most things, but MH370 has been unpredictable all the way through.” On March 8, 2014, an airplane carrying 239 passengers, destined for Beijing disappeared without a trace. Five years later, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) remains the largest aviation mystery in history.
In March 2018, around the fourth anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, a voicemail surfaced on Twitter that was supposed to have originated from Flight MH370’s black box. This recording went viral and eventually the voicemail was translated to “Danger SOS it is dire for you to evacuate be cautious they are not human SOS danger SOS.” A series of numbers, assumed to be coordinates, followed this message. This hoax suggests that aliens abducted the plane.
Snopes, a fact checking website, has determined that this voicemail is a hoax. Snopes, reported that this hoax was able to spread because, “the viral voicemail story has been conflated with an all-too-common (but unfounded) conspiracy theory that MH370 was abducted by aliens.” This is an instance in which a fake news story has the ability to answer questions that were left unanswered by investigators and authorities in 2014.
Most fake news is simply manufactured and unfounded nonsense that has no relation to reality. But, this piece of fake news worked so well because it provided answers to unanswered questions. The voicemail addressed the mystery of the airplane, inflated by CNN’s constant coverage, that the general public and the family members of the missing passengers had grappled with for years.
On March 8, 2014, the day that the plane disappeared, CNN produced articles every hour, providing its audience with any and all updates regarding Flight MH370. At the time CNN used data to track the habits of their viewers and they found out that the Malaysian Airlines flight was one of the most viewed topics. They capitalized on the public’s interest in the disappearance of Flight MH370, and they started to cover the flight nonstop. While the “round the clock coverage” has ceased, CNN continues to write articles about the flight and the investigations into its disappearance, some three years later. CNN’s coverage produced an unprecedented reaction and response from their viewers. Some viewers, like Martin Dolan, undoubtedly lost sleep over it.
But why were people fixating on every breaking news story, news notification, and update regarding the Malaysian Airlines Flight? The most significant reason for this obsession lies with the human drive for self-preservation and the need to control the uncontrollable. When we first hear about tragedies, we immediately want to know all of the details to cope with it. But we also want to ensure that the same tragedy will not befall us again.
Also, the lack of information and sensationalism of Flight 370’s disappearance reaffirmed beliefs that plane crashes are now considered unavoidable threats. Essentially, “even though we are more likely to die from cancer (1 in 4 odds for men, 1 in 5 odds for women) than a plane crash (1 in 11,000,000 million odds), cancer feels like a known, even avoidable threat (even if it’s not) whereas the missing plane pushes our personal panic button.”
People use technology to gain, maintain, and ensure constant control and connection with others. In the twenty-first century, Americans are accustomed to technology and constant surveillance. The disappearance of Flight MH370 proved that access to technology, and the control that it provides, could vanish without warning at any moment.Americans are so accustomed to being watched, tracked, and listened to and when that disappears it is jarring.
The growing sensationalism, the loss of comfort provided by technology, and the panic that resulted from CNN’s coverage exemplify a broader trend in the twenty-first century media. Americans tend to fixate on stories that shatter their beliefs about institutional systems, violate their desire for control, and challenge them to think about the implications of our newly drawn conclusions. This sensationalism also forced people to make speculations about the plane’s disappearance. Their speculation further blurred the line between “real” and “fake” news because there is no evidence of the plane that could prove or disprove their theories or speculation. The lack of evidence calls into question any current news surrounding the flight because there are very limited sources of verified information. Overall, sensationalism coupled with the lack of evidence about Flight 370 makes it difficult for anyone to figure out what truly happened to Flight 370.
This piece of fake news is exemplary of broader trends to manipulate and sensationalize the information and media of the twenty-first century. Whoever created this hoax knew that it would receive mass media and worldwide attention because the original story dominated all national news networks for months. They used the sensationalism surrounding the disappearance to their advantage. This hoax built upon people’s preexisting beliefs about the plane’s disappearance. However, the discussion of theories and hoaxes by aviation experts, government officials, journalists, and the general public alike, surrounding the plane’s disappearance is nothing new. In the years and even months following the disappearance, everyone had something to say about why the plane went missing and where it could possibly be found. Traditional news outlets like CNN discussed the possibility of a black hole swallowing the plane. This theory contributes to the narrative that something extraterrestrial was responsible for this disappearance.
The black box from Flight MH370 has not been found and there is no evidence to support the claim that aliens were responsible for the plane’s disappearance. This hoax revitalized public interest in the Malaysian Airlines flight and brought it to the attention of an even larger global audience. This hoax managed to engage our attention span by discussing an element of the plane that was less discussed, the black box recordings. This hoax also provided those who believed it a sense of closure about what happened to Flight 370.