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What’s the Cure for Viral Nonsense?

Culture Featured Philosophy Policy Pop Culture Rantish

I try to avoid Facebook’s “Trending Topics” sidebar because it’s the most pointless and inane thing I’m forced to interact with on a regular basis.  I do not care if some singer doesn’t like T-Swift, I certainly don’t care about a video of supermodels eating chicken wings.  I usually switch it over to the Science and Tech tab because at least there I might find something of marginal interest.  Alas, I was assaulted with this monstrosity parading as science news.

Let’s gloss over the fact that there is no such thing as the International People’s Court.  Are they talking about the Palace of Peace (home to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and International Court of Justice)?  Maybe.  Dunno.  There’s a lot of crazy.

The gist of the article is that anti-GMO organizations are going to hold a kangaroo court where they try Monsanto (almost certainly in absentia, unless their counsel is particularly adventurous) for crimes such as “ecocide”, poisoning populations, and kicking puppies.  Needless to say we can assume the event will be replete with burned effigies (great for carbon emissions), patchouli, and loaded questions (“why did you decide to poison my children, Monsanto?”).

The activity itself is par for the course.  Environmental activists in particular are constantly planning marches and mock-trials that promise to usher in eco-justice, peace, and the Revolution.  You have to feel sorry for the actual biologists, doctors, and environmental scientists who look on upon the flock of ecstatic believers in the environmental religion.  They often find themselves unwillingly promoted to High Priest or denounced as shills for Big <insert capitalist target here>.  Their subtlety is lost on the throngs.  Their reasonable concerns about crop monoculture, genetic diversity, or intellectual property become fuel for Illuminati-esque conspiracies complete with their own libelous accusations and crude internal logic.

The connection to the Illuminati might be appropriate.  According to the Venerable Bede Wikipedia,

The society’s goals were to oppose superstition, obscurantism, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power. “The order of the day,” they wrote in their general statutes, “is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them.”

It sounds almost comforting – an organization built on the ideals of the Enlightenment dedicated to opposing nonsense and promoting reason.  It’s no wonder the most virulent of the anti-technology crowd would find common cause with Illuminati conspiracy theorists: their ideological wares have no substance but their superstition and prejudice, and their goal is not simply to find common support but to turn the state into a cudgel against those who would dare sell an Arctic Apple.

What perhaps concerns me most is the way that social media has become a way for crazies to find other crazies and surround themselves with crazies.  Or rather, for people receptive to crazy ideas to find crazy ideas and surround themselves with crazy ideas.  Youtube educator CGP Grey makes a solid case for a model of ideas similar to that of evolution.  Ideas spread or die based on how contagious they are, and emotional appeal is one of the easiest ways to make an idea contagious.  The Upworthyfication of content is just a symptom of this.  Nothing about it is particularly new, but with mass democratized communication channels these ideas can be spread more easily.  It’s easier to spread the fear that your child will get autism from her MMR vaccine than it is to spread anything with the phrase “correlation does not implllllyyyadsfjoiasdf” (sorry, that was so boring I fell asleep at the keyboard).  Bad ideas can spread as part of earnest attempts to educate – even well-regarded pages like I F***ing Love Science regularly spew unscientific junk in the hopes of getting clicks.  Hysteria and ignorance can often be distilled into simple terms, while the complexity of science resists both simplification and the unbridled emotion that fuels the internet.

If sites like Facebook and Twitter are the vector for these infections, do they have some responsibility?  Opposition to GMOs and vaccines are unscientific and deadly.  Twitter and Facebook already have to filter what we see and what we don’t see – they both exert some control over the “fire hydrant” of data we consume.  Certainly they take responsibility for regulating some content – pornography, some gruesome content, breastfeeding.  This solution often comes up in discussions surrounding the Islamic State, which has used their contagious ideas to convince comfortable Western Muslims to run off and join a millenarian death cult against the admonitions of their governments, families, and faith communities.  Do we ask Facebook and Twitter to change their algorithms to reflect what we believe to be true?  Google already prioritizes based on what its algorithm identifies as fact.  What happens if Islamophobes or anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers gain control of these mechanisms?

There’s no good and easy answer to this.  These companies live in a space different from the state, which is rightly bound by free speech legislation.  Google, Facebook, and Twitter exist in a marketplace where no one is forced to use their services and where they try to best serve the consumer.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves another question: how can we make true, substantial content go “viral”?  Virality is almost defined by its lack of substance, its appeal to base emotions.  An academic paper has never gone viral.  Maybe Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century did in some circles, but its impact was rather limited (The most stark inequality about that book is surely between those who have read it and those on whose shelf it lies unopened).

There are organizations that try to do this.  The Foundation for Economic Education (a libertarian-leaning think tank) produces thoughtful and accessible primers on how fundamental economics interacts with the real world.  Many other think-tanks do the same.  Journalists may try to join the fight, but editors are often ground into submission by the requirements of mass-appeal.  It’s not about a particular piece of content being “neutral” or “non-ideological” (I’m not sure such a thing is possible), but about it being substantial and truthful.

Maybe we need an Illuminati of our own – those who advocate reason, who push back prejudice and anti-rationalism, and who fight to ensure that the state is not co-opted into the true believer’s fight.  If the candidacy of a certain animate comb-over has taught us anything, prejudice travels faster than understanding and people are more attracted to ignorance than to knowledge.

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