Talking Points

A fake Russian ray gun destroyed the media's BS detector

For years now there has been a bubbling current of worry about something called "Havana syndrome." It was initially reported among U.S. embassy staff in Cuba (thus the name) in 2016, with symptoms including headache, tinnitus, vertigo, and confusion. Many speculated it was the result of a "directed-energy weapon" the Russians had somehow built in secret.

But the CIA recently concluded Havana syndrome didn't come from any foreign power. This should come as no surprise. The symptoms were vague, and the proposed weapon was scientifically implausible. As Dr. Adam Gaffney argued back in November, it had all the signs of a classic "mass sociogenic illness." Importantly, this is not to say that the symptoms were fake — rather, the idea is people with ordinary ailments come to believe they're caused by some external (and often spooky) source. The resulting stress and fear causes more people to experience symptoms, and the "syndrome" spreads. Similar cases have been documented for centuries.

So that's no shade on the diplomats. Anybody could fall for mass sociogenic illness in the right context. But there is some shame on the great many journalists and members of Congress who stoked inflammatory, implausible claims about magic Russian ray guns.

A very brief sample: Ana Swanson, Edward Wong, and Julian E. Barnes reported in October 2020 at The New York Times that several diplomats in China were likely victims of Havana syndrome. Ken Dilanian, Andrea Mitchell, and Brenda Breslauer reported in December 2020 at NBC News that a CIA officer who worked in Moscow could be a victim as well. (Dilanian, incidentally, was one of the biggest syndrome hysterics, but he also helped break the story of the new CIA report, probably because of his very friendly history with the agency.) A National Academy of Sciences report that argued there could be a scientific basis for a secret microwave gun got respectful coverage from CNN, NBC, ABC, The New York Times, Axios, The Guardian, and countless other outlets.

Even after BuzzFeed News obtained a State Department report in September 2021 that dismissed the ray gun theory as garbage and named sociogenic illness as the likely culprit, many stuck to their guns. In October, Politico repeated claims from anonymous officials supposedly "turning up new evidence that the symptoms are the result of directed-energy attacks." "I always suspected that these illnesses were the product of deliberate attacks and that the Russian government was behind them," wrote Julia Ioffe at Puck the same month. Most astonishingly, the panic led Congress to pass a bill paying for treatment resulting from the syndrome — unanimously.

Now, errors are an occupational hazard in journalism, and I've made my fair share over the years. But the idea of devious Russian spies inventing James Bond-esque spy tech that somehow escaped the notice or possession of the U.S. security apparatus and the scientific establishment? That should have raised the hackles of anyone with a functioning BS detector, which, last I checked, journalists are supposed to have.