Let’s reminisce back to when the Internet debuted. If you’ll remember, we were sold a bill of Boomer idealism that we were on the cusp of an informational awakening, in the doorway of a brave new frontier, where data and a global network of interconnected minds would break down cultural and informational barriers to improve our lives in virtually every way.
Fast-forward twenty some years. Hate crimes in the U.S. have been on the rise for the fourth year in a row. Surveys reveal that a third of Americans don’t believe in evolution. Nearly one in five are convinced that vaccines cause autism. Impossibly, two percent hold the belief that the world is flat. Donald Trump is President.
So much for the “wisdom of crowds.” If knowledge is truly the golden egg here, an easy case could be made that the Internet has been a grand failure. I’m guessing the early web’s most ardent supporters didn’t foresee the possibility that we wouldn’t use this infinite library to learn about our world nearly insomuch as we’d rely on it to seek ideological echo chambers parroting our worldviews. Or that a majority of Americans wouldn’t be able to distinguish statements of fact from opinion, according to recent Pew Research findings. Or that free content, much of it poorly written and offering superficial (if not outright deceptive) assessments of world events would shutter newsrooms and render a career in journalism a novelty on par with steam locomotive conductors. Or that a majority of Americans, now equipped with a device in our pockets containing the sum of world history, wouldn’t be able to pass a U.S. citizenship test, or even name a single Supreme Court Justice.
It seems the only thing the Internet is good at, aside from providing a platform for those who least deserve one, is the fact that everyone now has a forum where they can pick and choose the evidence they want to arrive at explanations supporting their confirmation biases.
The role misinformation played in the last presidential election — where Cambridge Analytica and Russia-funded troll farms and social media campaigns fed propaganda to U.S. voters in the months leading up to the 2016 race — has been discussed ad nauseam in the past two years, and needs no further analysis here. Besides, as we’ve seen in the headlines recently, bad information has now moved beyond politics and down a far more dangerous path.
Cesar Sayoc, the suspect who mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and other high-profile critics of President Trump, had been indoctrinated by a diet of fake news, and regularly shared conspiracy theories published by fringe sites on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Robert Bowers, the gunman accused of killing 11 in an anti-Semitic attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, regularly used social media platform Gab to express his hatred toward Jews and HIAS, the humanitarian nonprofit that, in Bower's words, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.”
In both cases, conspiracy theories were motivating factors behind what these men did. A quick glance at any number of Internet outlets will confirm that, sadly, their beliefs are a lot more common than you’d think. The real questions should be why the Internet is cultivating lunatics, and why, with so much information at our disposal, we still turn to storytelling and rumor over science, facts, data, common sense.
People love conspiracy theories because they promise forbidden knowledge. They provide the satisfaction of feeling as though we’ve peeled back some curtain to uncover an intricate web of lies and deceit, an ability to decode the “truth” behind any event. It isn’t a coincidence that the conspiracy theorist’s information is typically culled from hyper-partisan sites or places like YouTube, not exactly top-level security clearance sources. It also isn’t a coincidence that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are usually wont to indulge in many other unrelated conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are a comfort mechanism. They provide us with the delusion that we possess some insight into how the world actually operates instead of the far more humbling, anxiety-inducing notion that coincidences happen, that we’re not always right, that sometimes we aren’t in control.
Conspiracy theories also have the effect of always conveniently affirming our preexisting beliefs. You’ll never hear a conspiracy theorist admit they’ve stumbled upon a new piece of information that proved them wrong. That just isn’t how tribal ideas are expressed. Conspiracy theories exhibit an airtight construction; any evidence working against their beliefs, no matter how compelling, simply proves another conspiracy is afoot. Indeed, even before Sayoc’s arrest, conspiracy theorists were aflutter with evidence-free claims that he was a Manchurian candidate used as a pawn in a “false flag” plot to paint Democrats as victims in the weeks leading up to the midterms. You can’t make this stuff up. Oh wait, yes you can.
Mark Twain said, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” We’ve had more than 20 years to navigate this informational playground. If we’ve collectively decided that truth doesn’t matter, if our personalized, partisan accounts of reality are greater rewards than the prospect of using this tool to become informed, morally contentious people, can we really be surprised when bad ideas shape bad people?