Conspiracy theories and other craziness — what to do about the disinformation and lies on the Internet that don’t contribute to the betterment of mankind?
(10-13-2015, updated 07-14-2018) Previously I wrote that I believe that in the long run humanity is getting better, in part due to the Internet. In the short term, though, easy access to information has its downsides as well.
Anyone can find the most ridiculous claims online, then google them and find myriad sites that all support said claims. If someone has not learned to consider the source of information, those sites that all support one another could be seen as proof that something must be true. Just google Obama and aliens and see for yourself. If someone doesn’t have a sense of humor, even many of the spoof sites could be taken seriously, adding to the disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Of course, the folks who think the country is run by aliens or that Obama is an alien are really out there, but consider how many people still believe that Obama wasn’t born in America, or that he is a Muslim (as if that’s relevant), that the world is run by a small group of Jewish bankers, that 9-11 was a government plot or that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged by professional actors.
Consider how easy it is for ISIS, all the way over in the Middle East, to recruit young people here in America via Internet, or how easily the gunman in the latest school shooting in Umpqua, Oregon, found an audience for his ideas and intentions on an online chat room.
These are all aspects of the information age that don’t exactly contribute to the betterment of humankind; in fact, the disinformation directly contributes to ignorance, superstition and violence.
What can we do? Only allow websites and blogs that can verify their claims? That would be limiting the freedom of speech.
Forbid at least websites or blogs that present themselves as online newspapers or news magazines to make false claims disguised as fact and to spread conspiracy theories to get the uniformed riled up and distracted? American politicians wouldn’t stand for that because here politics is largely based on making false statements disguised as fact, at least in the past 15 years or so. Take the claims by American conservative politicians that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts and that this will encourage women to get pregnant and have abortions. A big stink all over the media, involving doctored videos and a committee hearing and all. The committee eventually found that Planned Parenthood did nothing wrong, but that little fact is barely mentioned.
Do we teach epistemology (the theory of knowledge — how do you know what you know and how do you know it’s true?) in high school? Conservatives, in America anyway, are against that, because independent thinking might make students question their family’s beliefs. The Texas Republican platform, for example, specifically states that they are against teaching critical thinking skills in public schools for this reason.
Do truthful politicians (if there are any), truthful journalists, truthful teachers, writers, bloggers, etc. just keep on keeping on, pointing out nonsense and disinformation on the Internet, on TV, in books and in school as best they can in the hopes that in the long run reason will prevail?
If ready availability of information is a benefit to humanity in the long run, how do you think the present problems will be solved? Will it involve policy or will information (and perhaps education) just evolve kind of naturally? What would that look like?
What do you think? Because I really don’t know.
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Ignorance in the Information Age”, 10-13-2015)
Header image: Emiliano Ponzi. From: “The Conspiracy Theory Detector: How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories” (Mind) The Scientific American, December 1, 2010. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-conspiracy-theory-director/