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Osama bin Laden conspiracy theories race across the world

The quick burial of Osama bin Laden and the decision not to release photos of his body are sparking wild rumors, not just in Pakistan and the Arab world, but also in Europe and the US.

By Staff writer / May 3, 2011

Tourists look at newspapers printed with the portrait of Osama bin Laden in front page, at a news stand on "La promenade des Anglais" in Nice, southeastern France, Tuesday, May 3.

Lionel Cironneau/AP

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Less than 48 hours after the White House announced the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and his burial at sea, "conspiracy theories" are racing across the planet.

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The quick burial of Mr. bin Laden and the decision not to release photos of his body were part of a White House strategy to prevent revulsion throughout the Muslim world. But the lack of public proof of his death is sparking wild rumors, not just in Pakistan and the Arab world, but also in Europe and the US.

Among the radical assertions bouncing around the Internet: bin Laden was dead before the attack; he is still alive; the DNA that was supposed to be bin Laden's was inconclusive; and that the White House concocted a raid just to ensure President Obama's reelection. That's just to name a few.

IN PICTURES: Global reaction to Osama bin Laden's death

The glut of conspiracy theories suggests a more general breakdown of traditional media’s authority in an era of text-messaging, Twitter, and instant “clarity” by far-flung experts, analysts say.

“More than simply a surfeit of conspiracy theory, [there is] a crisis of confidence between authorities and citizens," writes Bruno Fay, French author of a book on the spread of conspiracy theories called "Plot-ocracy," in the French magazine Nouvel Observateur. “Behind these plot concepts are all those who do not believe anymore in authorities. The situation today is: how to believe the authorities when bin Laden's death has not been transparent? By saying that, I am not saying that I believe in conspiracies.”

Mr. Fay notes that some 15 percent of people polled in a 2008 World Public Opinion survey managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland felt the US was responsible for the 9/11 attack. Some 8 percent of French agreed, and the figure reached 40 percent in some Muslim-majority nations.

Much of what passes for “theories” the day after a dramatic story are often, in fact, personal extrapolations melded to fit strongly held beliefs based on unclear information and a broad new proclivity not to trust traditional media.

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Indeed, “conspiracy” fits the times, analysts say. Former fringe story spinners – often racists or presumed odd balls – that believe the US moon landing was faked, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or that 9/11 was a US “inside” plot, have given way to more acceptable cultish views in an age of 1,000 TV channels, social media, and WikiLeaks. Mass belief in alternate narratives is part of the 21st century zeitgeist.

Only last week, Mr. Obama put forward documentation from Hawaii that scotched a “birther” theory that asserts Obama was not born in the US. More than 40 percent of registered Republican voters believed that false assertion, brought to a head by tycoon Donald Trump, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times survey.

As for the conspiracy theories surrounding bin Laden's death, Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Mark Grossman was at a loss to explain them at a press conference in Islamabad today.

“I can’t answer every conspiracy theory [coming from] every place," said Mr. Grossman. "Osama bin Laden is dead … [but] the war on terrorism is not over.”

IN PICTURES: Global reaction to Osama bin Laden's death

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