Could a plane like this disappear? Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Five theories to explain how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have disappeared

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage found, conspiracy-style theories as to how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared seem increasingly plausible. Planes don't disappear. Or do they?

The most baffling thing about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that it is so difficult to draw parallels with similar disasters. This has never happened before. The airline, the civil aviation authority, the region’s air navigation service providers, and even the aircraft and engine manufacturers themselves appear clueless.

Modern planes don’t disappear: they are equipped with a range of high-tech reporting and recording systems, many of which send back data at frequent intervals to either the airline or the plane’s manufacturers. But, shortly after the plane reached a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, everything seemed to stop. Even publicly available information found on aviation enthusiast websites and transmitted from ADS-B trackers installed on almost all aircraft say absolutely nothing about what happened. This means the aircraft’s transponder stopped working immediately, which is incredibly rare.

The Boeing 777 series is one of the safest, most reliable aircraft in the industry and has a near perfect safety record, having been involved in only ten accidents since its debut in 1995. The aircraft in question was a 777-200ER. It was only 12 years old, and had an impeccable maintenance record.

If the aircraft had disintegrated at the point at which its transponder stopped working, there would be debris spread over a huge area – the same area that has been the main focus of all search activities. Data sent by the aircraft would have indicated some sort of change in speed or height. The area around the point where contact was lost isn’t particularly isolated and the many ships in the vicinity would have seen something, especially given the clear weather conditions at the time.

If all communication had been lost, for whatever reason, and the aircraft had continued flying on its intended course, turned back or gone wildly off course, it would have been tracked. In a region with so many separate air forces, if the aircraft had continued over Vietnam or back-tracked over Thailand then one of their air forces would’ve seen it – even with its transponder disabled.

The information released by the authorities has been confused and inconsistent to say the least – but working on the information we have, there seem to be no obvious explanations for what could have happened:

Did the plane break up mid-air?

At first glance, this would be the most likely reason for the disappearance. In 2002 a China Airlines Boeing 747 disintegrated over the Taiwan Straight, killing all 225 on board. One key parallel here is that this catastrophe took place shortly after reaching 35,000 feet. The main reason for this accident was later found to be metal fatigue caused by inadequate maintenance following a previous incident. Should this have happened to MH370 due to either a structural issue with the aircraft or an explosion caused by a bomb or an exploding fuel tank, there would be debris. In all similar incidents, the wreckage has been found not long after the crash. This makes the most common-sense explanation difficult to believe.

Did the engines fail?

Were the aircraft’s two engines to fail, the plane could still glide for 80 to 90 miles. This has happened before. In 2001 Air Transat Flight 236, a large Airbus A330 (only slightly smaller than the Malaysia Airlines 777) lost all power over the  Atlantic en route to Lisbon. The pilot managed to glide (yes, glide) the aircraft over 65 miles with absolutely no power. Everyone survived.

Did cabin pressure drop suddenly, causing the pilot to lose consciousness?

If an aircraft were to suddenly lose pressure at a very high altitude, there is a chance that this could cause the crew to lose consciousness. In 2005 this happened to Helios Airways Flight 522, a Boeing 737 flying from Larnaca to Athens. The loss of pressure was so severe that it knocked passengers and crew out for almost two hours. In this case, the pilots should have been able to react quickly and connect to oxygen masks, but didn’t. The aircraft flew for almost two more hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed. If this happened to MH370, then it doesn’t explain the sudden disappearance. Data would still be sent from the plane, and the chances are that the crew would have been able to respond.

Did the pilot commit suicide?

This has become one of the Malaysian authorities’ key focus areas. Did one of the pilots do something to crash the aircraft? This is believed to have been the cause of the 1999 Egypt Air Flight 990 crash over the Atlantic. Data recorded by the aircraft and picked up by air traffic control, together with voice recordings from the cockpit, suggested that the co-pilot played a role in this disaster – although this was denied by the airline and not confirmed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Perhaps voice recordings from the black boxes will eventually provide some sort of detail about what happened in the final minutes before, and after, contact was lost. Until then, even this explanation seems unlikely: it doesn’t explain why the plane stopped transmitting data.

Was this a terrorist attack?

This was one of the main initial lines of investigation and the discovery that two Iranian passengers were travelling on stolen European passports generated a flurry of speculation. Now that it seems these men were asylum seekers, the explanation looks much less probable. Besides, why would terrorists target a Malaysian aircraft full of Chinese nationals? Even the western Chinese separatist theory seems improbable. And again, if a bomb had gone off, there would be data or debris. Alternatively, if the plane had been hijacked, surely communication would have been made by now?

With no facts, conspiracy-style theories are becoming almost conceivable. Has there been some sort of cover-up? Did MH370 hit a military aircraft (unlikely at that height)? Was the aircraft hijacked and landed in a secret location for use later on? Did corporate or political sabotage play a role? There are even more peculiar, but strangely hopeful hypotheses involving alien abduction or time travellers from the future, along the lines of the 1989 movie Millenium.

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage, there are too many theories to follow. Until there’s evidence that the aircraft crashed there has to be hope. After all, planes don’t just disappear. Or do they?

CORRECTION [17/02/2014]: As pointed out by a reader, Helios Airways Flight 522 did not experience a sudden loss of cabin pressure. Instead, a series of mistakes by ground and flight crews meant that the cabin never pressurised during flight, and the warning lights and siren were misinterpreted as a problem with the plane's landing gear. The pilots, crew and passengers passed out, and the plane flew on autopilot until crashing into hills near the village of Grammatiko, north of Athens.

Getty
Show Hide image

Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.