I know, I know. The first reason the White House cited for not releasing photos of the dead Osama bin Laden was that they might incite violence.
That's not a bad point, but we all know the real reason: anyone with a deep enough need to believe conspiracies will find a reason not to believe what they see - and social media is a very able courier when it comes to helping fashion that kind of non-reality.
Of course, conspiracy theories have always been with us. JFK, the Oliver Stone hit from 1991, helped introduce millions of people to some of the more out-there theories that had been circulating for almost three decades about President Kennedy's murder.
But looking back, 1991 seems like the Age of Innocence. It's one thing for one popular movie to feature one guy's idea of what really went down in Dallas in 1963. But it's entirely another to contemplate what would happen with a real picture of Osama bin Laden shot through the head. An orgy of sharing, commenting, theorizing and outright Photoshopping would commence, and in the process the truth would once again be obscured -- but obscured collectively.
One of the most popular images to circulate early Monday morning - it was posted at 2:08 a.m. on Andrew Sullivan's blog -- was the one I've included here, in which a smiling, waving President Obama is shown with the caption: "Sorry it took so long to get you a copy of my birth certificate. I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden."
And that's where two of the biggest stories of the last few weeks conflate, surprisingly enough, into one comprehensive theme. In an environment where we're all so busy adding quotes to existing pictures, creating material to be part of the latest meme, and passing along quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. that he didn't actually say, the release of an official Osama death photo seems beside the point -- just like, frankly, Obama's release of his long-form birth certificate. If you want to believe it's an official document, and official proof that Obama was born in Hawaii, you will. And if you don't, you won't. Everything is suspect. Social media allows us to distribute, create and pick our own reality like never before, even a reality that isn't real.
In fact, if you want to throw yet another big story of the last few weeks - the Royal Wedding -- into the current user-generated stew, that's possible too. In my morning perusal of media sites today, I came across this concoction on Gawker -- of Obama and the gang in the White House Situation Room - only, in this representation, everyone there, from Hillary to Joe Biden, is wearing Princess Beatrice's intergalactic "hat," making a tense situation just that much more bearable!
The idea of mix-and-match content and, thus, mix-and-match reality, is nothing new. But what makes it so occasionally alarming is that there are more and more times when even the savviest among us can't figure out which things go together, and which don't. We can rest assured - can't we? - that President Obama did not distribute Princess Beatrice party hats to those watching the bin Laden raid. But then there's that case of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that wasn't. You may have seen it over the last few days. It said the following: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."
I saw it on Facebook Monday morning, and believed it. It sure sounded like something he might say. Then, a friend told me yesterday that he never actually said it. She cited a post by AllThingsD's Peter Kafka which reported the quote wasn't his, but written either by Penn Jillette or Jessica Dovey. (No, you're not supposed to know who she is, but maybe, like @reallyvirtual, she'll get her 15 minutes out of this.)
But wait, there's an update. Now, everyone is agreeing the quote actually was written by Jessica Dovey, including Jessica Dovey! Jillette explains that he saw a longer status update from her that included a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., put quotes around the wrong words -- and voila! - distributed on Twitter to more than 1.6 million people!
At least, I think that's how it happened, but reality is hard to get at.