Social media can, at times, be more frustrating than empowering. But at its worst it can be empowering in the wrong way. It used to be that the main complaint you could reasonably make about the detritus littering your newsfeed was that it was mundane and trivial – who wants to know what some nonentity from school, with whom you no longer have any interaction, had for brunch?
But in the last few years it has taken a turn for the absurd: you can’t go on Facebook now without wading through a mass of uninformed conspiratorial or pseudo-scientific babble, posted by people who should either know better, or, should at least have the self-reflection to know that they are not qualified or capable of knowing better and therefore ought to keep quiet (both are equally aggravating). I am not the only person who has noticed this and I have become increasingly aware of a groundswell of frustration building up among my own network and further afield. After several frustrated conversations with friends on the subject I encountered a piece on Slate which expresses similar concerns and incredulity at how normally reasonable people are taken in by such claims.
As the author of that piece points out, the most frustrating thing about somebody posting the latest 9/11 “Truth” nonsense, anti-vaccine rhetoric or the latest “Expose the Illuminati” fairytale is that many of these things take only a moment’s googling to comprehensively dismiss. I encountered this recently when an acquaintance with no knowledge of the subject and presenting no evidence whatsoever tried to convince me that “terrorism” as a concept is a hoax by “the system” to control everyone. The argument was basically a series of appropriate sounding words like “America”, “money, “corporations” and “global elite” loosely strung together and bookended by assertive statements like “I truly believe that!” I calmly pressed him on the evidence for this claim and was given only further assertions and “beliefs”. Later, he sent me some “evidence” which consisted of a flat-out incorrect quote attributed to a well-known politician which, you guessed it, took me only moments to correct via a quick google search. I came away with the realisation that these beliefs are by-and-large chosen, as opposed to being reached by a process of critically analysing the evidence. Counter-arguments based on evidence fall on deaf ears; if you actually counter their assertion with a well-cited example they tend to look at you like you just let a wolverine into the maternity ward, and respond with something like “that’s what they want you to think”. As Sam Harris said of arguing with religious fanatics (a similar activity in my experience) “What evidence can you provide to someone who does not respect evidence?”
That’s What They Want You To Think.
This kind of conspiratorial mind-set finds a comfortable home on the internet and particularly social media because they are spaces where the normal rules of conversation (depending on how you select your audience) do not really apply. Facebook is perhaps the worst culprit because it is by definition a social tool where your immediate circle of friends are likely to jump on your bandwagon no matter how hastily assembled it is. Further, Facebook friends outside your immediate circle with whom you rarely interact may get annoyed by this but will generally opt to just let it lie rather than getting into a protracted argument in the comments section. Thus, through a process of reciprocal confirmation bias and lack of resistance, you begin to buy into your own bullshit. Conspiratorial bullshit-merchants tend to form clusters via Facebook pages and networking and the virtuous cycle of confirmation bias expands, which brings us to where we are today. It is now an endemic feature and has taken great advantage of the explosion of click bait tactics, with links like “Once you see this you will question everything you thought you knew!” or some such condescending nonsense.
The “how” is fairly easy to explain but what concerns me more is the “why” people of varying intelligence espouse views which are either anti-scientific (like the ongoing campaign against any kind of medicine produced by a pharmaceutical company), devoid of any real evidence and simply based on a suspicion of any kind of authority (like the various “global elite” fictions), downright silly (go on some of the “Illuminati” groups and you’ll find all sorts of babble about ancient aliens and how vapour trails from planes are actually the government spraying mind-controlling poison) or, at worst, actually harmful and irresponsible (like the empty claims about “natural” cancer cures being suppressed by corporations or the absurd campaign against vaccination) – Why?
The first thing to notice is that this mind-set is a very middle class phenomenon. Once you realise that you can identify it as a luxury of those well-off enough to be bored with the world around them. “I truly believe that” is a wishful assertion. How exciting it would be if beneath this bland comforting veil, a world of cloak-and-dagger intrigue permeated everything and, by claiming to see through it, you yourself become a participant, an iconoclastic rebel rising above the naïve slaves around you. In fact, the inverse is true: it takes braver, more circumspect and critical individuals to look at the world around them and accept it as it is: a combination of uncoordinated chaos and banal business-as-usual. You don’t need a degree in politics to understand that most governments can hardly coordinate their own health systems or maintain consensus within their own parties – the idea that they are able to collude into some kind of New World Order cabal to enslave the global population is an exceptionally naïve position. Similarly, you don’t need a PHD to understand how absurd it is to think all scientists are conspiring to hold back life-saving knowledge or poison the population with all that deadly non-organic produce. Sure, there are always going to be things we don’t know but I don’t feel the need to invent unknowns to make the world more exciting. If you take the time to look around and see the world as it is, it is scary, exciting, terrible and wonderful enough already without recourse to fantasy.