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. So everyone relax. There isn’t a “legion” of teenage girls obsessed with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As usual, the media has over-sensationalized and misrepresented a topic. No one should be surprised.
Now that all of that is explained, I hope it is clear I am talking about the “fandom” element of the “Free Jaharists” and not the more analytical, intelligent elements that are questioning a lot of the official narrative about the Boston bombing.
The fandom is out there and it is indeed a “fandom” in every sense of the word. Young women and teenage girls make up the bulk of the “Free Jahar” and “Justice for Jahar” online movements. This is the case even in the less over-wrought, more analytical communities. One of the first “Free Jahar” fandom sites is a strange combination of Boston bombing information and One Direction adoration (you will want to mute your speakers before clicking on this site – in fact, mute for all the Tumblr links in this article), and Gawker was all over it, making fun of the girl behind the Tumblr and those who followed her lead. I will call them girls here for brevity’s sake but this is not an attempt to demean them. The movement is, in fact, made up mostly of females who can best be described as girls, age-wise. There are men and adults in this “movement,” to be sure, but for the most part they are quieter than their younger, female counterparts.
But even though their numbers have been artificially inflated, the girls who do make up the backbone of the crush-based Free Jaharists have been busy. Really bad fan fiction was written, which I won’t link to because no one needs to read prose that bad (I question how any man could get an erection after so much blood loss – frequent commenter here, Hils, thinks it was written by a 14-year-old boy and I tend to agree with her). Hours were spent and are still being spent finding pictures of Dzhokhar, turning them into emotional videos imploring people to see the softer side of Jahar. Silly, overwrought photo manipulations are thick in the ether.
These girls become very angry when people call their devotion to Dzhokhar a fandom, but that’s exactly what it is. As much as they wring their hands and gnash their teeth over the fact that they are accused of having trivial motivations, much of the discussion on the Tumblr tags revolves around how cute Dzhokhar is and their collective desire to break him out of jail and give him all the Doritos he could ever want. They are impressed deeply by obvious information, like that Dzhokhar looks like his father. Many of the comments under the “Free Jahar” Tumblr tag are quite inane. Strange comments are made and lots of girls seem to want a cute boyfriend and think Chechnya is the place to find one. Yep, they’re a fandom. The bottom line is that these girls like Dzhokhar because he is cute and don’t want him to be guilty of terrorism. Some temper it with intelligent analysis but most view him in a light not dissimilar from the way they view the other young men in various fandoms.
A slightly more serious subset of the fandom founded a website called We Are The Lion, the name based on a Tweet Dzhokhar made. Though the site is pretty well-done, as of this writing the site forum has only 86 members. This group tries to focus on what they consider evidence in the case and less on the cult of cute built around Dzhokhar. There is tension between the cute-based factions and the slightly more intellectual factions. Some of the infighting, best seen on Tumblr, centers on squabbles about the “fan girls” dragging everyone down with their silly behavior. Some of the girls have created a playlist from all the music Dzhokhar mentioned on his Twitter. It’s hard to explain the use of such a playlist in seeking actual justice for Dzhokhar based on the many problems a lot of us have with the official story about his arrest and questioning. There has also been a lot of abuse thrown at a couple of Dzhokhar’s friends, whom the girls do not think are supporting him enough.
There have been some moments that, for me, were sort of cringe-worthy. The girls have what can only be called an imperfect understanding of the legal system in the USA. For example, some of the girls became aware of the West Memphis Three case because Dzhokhar had written about it. As they read about the West Memphis Three case, they were made aware of the Alford plea that the West Memphis Three were offered to allow them to be released from prison after having spent years in jail despite being actually innocent. The girls were encouraged that such a thing exists and went into a flurry “researching” it, half-convinced that Dzhokhar could offer an Alford plea and be allowed to, you know, just walk away from the whole judicial process that comes when one is accused of one of the worst acts of domestic terrrorism since the Oklahoma City bombing. I felt a similar twinge when another Tumblr user asked, regarding the writ of habeas corpus:
“Is it real, is it real?!”
I have a source and a valid document. Like I said, I will triple check once I find a legitimate email address on the source mentioned. If it indeed is a “fake” document I will let you know immediately. In any event, I’m happy this was questioned because it shows we are not idiots who believe everything we hear, so give yourselves a round of applause.
But even as I wonder how much different the high school curricula across America must be than the ones around when I was a teenager, the fact is that these girls are researching things. Imperfect understandings are being ironed out. The person behind the Alford question, justice4dzhokhar, is asking intelligent questions and catching inconsistencies in media reports. But because intelligent questions are being posted in an unthinking fandom wherein Dzhokhar’s interest in Doritos is as important to them as information analysis about his case, she’s both drowned out by the teen dream elements of the fandom and made trivial by association.
They are also drowned out by the members only too anxious to embrace the worst sort of conspiracy theory if it proves their idol innocent of terrorism. In their desperate and not particularly sophisticated attempts to exonerate Dzhokhar, some of the girls took a break from infighting and began to pass around videos of the worst sort. One is a video full of anti-semitism, insinuating that the doctors at the Jewish hospital where Dzhokhar was taken killed him, made the rounds in Tumblr communities. They’ve all shared that video that insinuated David Greene edited his now famous picture of Dzhokhar running from the second bombing scene – some of the girls ended up cursing his name (I cannot link to this because I can no longer find it so you will have to take my assertion with a grain of salt). These girls have also bought into the whole “it was staged” argument and I lack the will to link to it all. As little as two days ago they were still bandying around the pictures of Salah Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi, the two men defamed by the New York Post, men who have been proven not to have even been at the marathon when the bombs went off and therefore all the pictures that place them at the finish line when the bombs went off were completely misrepresented. Evidently, the two men look “shady.” I understand many girls may not understand what “ZOG” is, but it is not unexpected that perhaps one or two would have looked it up before forwarding a video that accuses a doctor of killing a man because that’s what some tin-foil crackpot thinks Jewish surgeons do when confronted with a Muslim patient. For every girl looking into writs of habeas corpus there are dozens more forwarding Jewish hatred without giving it a second thought because it may prove their idol innocent (and dead, another level of morbid romanticism).
Equally upsetting is the complete disconnect these girls have in how they look at information sources. The girls declaim “the media” while spreading some of the worst conspiracy theory they can find. If CNN is beneath contempt to them because of the many inaccuracies they reported about the Boston bombing case, what was the decision calculus that went into sharing an inflammatory video created to spread anti-Jewish hatred? I don’t begin to know the answer but there can be little doubt that something has gone very wrong when the mainstream media is rejected for spreading false information but InfoWars is seen as a good source for news. It seems as if to the generation that was raised online, one website is as valid as another.
But even as some of what these girls are doing online is disturbing to me, it’s hard to take it too seriously. These are girls and very young women and it’s not unexpected that young people will not be as serious or learned as older people, though there are definitely some serious girls in the fandom who are trying to raise the discourse above the level of “he’s cute, let’s rescue him.”
We also need to remember that “fandoms” around killers are nothing new. It is notable now because online media chose and keeps choosing to write about the Jahotties, as one news source called them. But long before Gawker readers looked up the word “hybristophilia,” Sondra London was disgusting the world with her devotion to serial killers, notably Danny Rolling, who serenaded her in court in front of the families of his victims. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, had a devoted fan club of women who found him irresistible, and still does if Tumblr is anything to go on. Women found Ted Bundy very attractive and one married him as he was on trial for murdering, among others, a 12-year-old girl. Scott Peterson has no shortage of women who want to be his girl on the outside. There are groups of girls devoted to Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers, and James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, but few media outlets spoke about those fandoms in the depth they devoted to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I don’t understand how it is Tsarnaev, Klebold and Holmes ended up with girls full of “feels” about them, but Ryan Lanza, the Newtown shooter, and Jared Lee Loughner, the Tuscon shooter, didn’t. It all seems very random. I suspect this is how my mother felt when I tried to explain how Bryan Adams was cute even with acne scars but George Thorogood was heinous because of acne scars.
But all frivolity on my part aside, on some level Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeals to a very specific part of a female youth mindset I don’t understand and suspect no one over the age of 30 can likely pin down. Youth culture is always bizarre to adults, or at least it often is. And at least these girls are, indeed, girls or very young women and not grown-ups like Sondra London and the women who just need a piece of Scott Peterson because attractive men who kill pregnant wives are extra hot. They are young girls writing the name of the object of their adoration on their hands. As disturbing as it may seem to us that these girls idolize a man who may have detonated a bomb that killed a child, these girls are not attracted to Dzhokhar because he is dangerous to them. They are not hybristophiliacs. They are not interested in Dzhokhar because he might be violent or might have done violent things. They are attracted to him because he is young, cute, and presents an inoffensive figure physically. That he was gravely injured just adds to it as it renders him even more inoffensive, and triggers an almost maternal desire to protect him. The word “hybristophilia” should never have been invoked with these girls.
Though time will tell how long this fandom will last, already the activity is dying down, hashtag-wise. I suspect that in a few more months the fandom element will slow to a crawl while more serious members find better kinship with others who don’t want to fantasize about Dzhokhar. The Facebook accounts for the various Free Jaharist fandoms don’t have very many members. Still, the girls and women in those communities are now convinced both that the media is coming around to their way of thinking and that bizarre numerology and sorcery were at work as the government framed Dzhokhar. Not much deep thinking going on and they are dwarfed by the larger community wherein actual analysis is happening.
Even as I was appalled at the willingness of these girls to engage in terrible conspiracy theory without researching much, even as they claim they reject media and think for themselves while blindly passing on information few researched, the “Free Jahar” fandom is just a small collection of young women plugged into a particular meme whose activities have been sensationalized. In fact, a lot of the hand-wringing over These Kids Today is little more than a mini-moral panic with a dash of “look at these stupid teenagers!” added for comedic value. Even within the “Free Jahar” fandom there are enough reasonably intelligent girls who, even if Dzhokhar’s messy hair is their primary motivation in belonging to such a group, have some grounded arguments to back their opinions.
So all of us, myself included, need to stop clutching pearls over these girls in love with a generically good looking, messy-haired bombing suspect. It’s nothing new, and even if adoring suspected killers remains a permanent state for the majority of these “Free Jahar” girls, they are a very small representation of young women in the USA. And it’s not all bad news. There’s research happening amongst some of the brighter members and, who knows, maybe a few of these girls will end up going to law school and becoming public defenders while the rest just grow up and remember with some small amount of embarrassment that time when they spent months up all night online defending a boy they thought innocent of murder simply because he was cute.
All the media coverage around the fandom is just one more distraction away from the complete hash that has been made of the Boston bombing investigation. Media outlets eager for easy marks inflated the fandom’s numbers with Facebook accounts devoted to legitimate dissent and made a game of “mock the teenage girls.” It’s all a misrepresented tempest in a teapot.