As I write this, a pandemic has cost America over a hundred thousand lives, people are protesting in the streets over the police’s murder of more unarmed Black men and women — and the President of the United States is tweeting new conspiracy theories. Specifically, one that originated on an anonymous blog stating that an elderly protester pushed down by the police and left bleeding in the street was a crisis actor.
If only he were alone in thinking this.
Instead, conspiracy theorists have a welcoming home in the Republican Party. Half of Fox News Viewers believe that Bill Gates wants to use a coronavirus vaccine to implant microchips into Americans in order to track them. While this is a pretty clear conspiracy theory because, hey, phones already have tracking devices, so why go to all the trouble of putting them in vaccines? Still, it’s believed by a significant portion of the population.
And then, of course there are the people who believe that 5G Wireless towers are spreading COVID-19. Or that George Soros orchestrated the Black Lives Matter protests, rather than that they arose because police keep killing unarmed Black people. And then of course there’s Obamagate which no one — including the President tweeting about it — seems to have a clear handle on.
In 2020, conspiracy theories are not reserved for your craziest uncle who thinks Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings. (Obviously false, because, if Kubrick had, they’d have been better filmed). Now, they are the norm.
That’s not entirely surprising. It’s naive to think that America wasn’t always a nation filled with conspiracy theorists. When Thomas Jefferson, who had many doubts about religion, ran for President, some people were terrified that he was going to outlaw the Bible. Like, they actually thought Jefferson would send people into their houses to take their bibles and burn them. But then, they also thought he was going to sell young white women into prostitution. Now, if they’d disliked Jefferson for being a slaveholder and thus actually participating in the selling of Black people into bondage, that would have been justified. But, unfortunately, that wasn't a problem for most Americans.
Which is to say, since the inception of this country, people have been enacting some version of Pizzagate when it comes to political leaders, even while ignoring the actual problems these leaders have.
There have been instances where the conspiracy theories have had wide reaching impact in the fast, largely when they were shared by government officials. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy (wrongly) believed that Soviet communist spies had infiltrated every level of the government and that it must be “the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” McCarthyism led to a Hollywood blacklist of writers believed to have any kind of “communist sympathies” as well as the execution of the Rosenbergs, who were believed to be acting as Soviet spies.
The difference between then and now is that McCarthyism was — eventually — meticulously debunked by Edward R. Murrow in what is still considered "one of the greatest journalistic take-downs ever recorded.” It led to the censure of McCarthy from President Eisenhower, and his eventual decline in power.
That would almost certainly not happen now. Even when conspiracy theories are debunked by responsible mainstream media outlets, faced with facts that contradict their favorite conspiracy theories, people would often rather reject the truth than the theory. That is likely due to the fact that the accessibility of reading material on the internet allows everyone the illusion of expertise.
In part, that’s due to remarkable successes in society. The fact that 99% of Americans are now literate would have shocked Americans a hundred years ago. That’s to say nothing of the fact that we’re able to research anything we want on the internet, essentially any time we want. You want to know the name of an actor in a movie you liked? You can find it out in 10 seconds on IMDB. You want to know when Delaware became a state (December 7th, 1787)? You don’t need to trudge all the way to a library. You google it.
Of course, that information goes beyond trivia. Finding out, say, “what caused the coronavirus” is not quite as simple as finding out “who played Han Solo in Star Wars.” Even just 30 years ago, when it came to information about diseases, you would have to get most of it from your doctor. That is not to say your doctor would have always been right, or that you necessarily would have liked the information they gave you. It simply means that it would have been more arduous to access what are now called “alternative facts.” If you wanted to know more about a disease, you would have, at the very least, had to go to a library, and find a book or medical journal (likely written by medical professionals, and fact checked by editors) and begin a rather lengthy process of reading and learning. How much easier to merely click on a Facebook article that informs you in easy-to-follow language that coronavirus is caused by 5G towers.
And hey, those people will tell you, they researched it. By which they meant, they read an article, perhaps even a few articles! (This is, as doctors will repeatedly tell you, not even close to actual research. Actual research would entail a sample set, trials, and much more. )
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, once noted that the American spirit could be summed up in the lyrics of the musical Oklahoma!, which states, “I’m not saying I’m no better than anybody else/ but I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good.” That’s a noble notion when it comes to people thinking that they have a right to sit at lunch counters or not be murdered by policemen. It’s a foolish notion when it comes to people’s conviction that they know as much as doctors or scientists because they read three articles on FreedomEagle.facebook.com.
Though they will certainly feel like they know a great deal after reading a topic, as their knowledge will have increased dramatically in a short time. A person — perhaps a doctor, let’s call them Person A — who has read thousands of articles on vaccination may read one more article. Perhaps, if it is an extremely good article, it will end up comprising 1 percent of Person A’s general knowledge on the subject. Which is to say, their knowledge isn’t likely to increase that much from reading a single paper. Barring the possibility that it is a world-altering paper, they’re about as educated on the topic as they were before. A person who had never read an article about vaccination before, however, can read such one article and find that their knowledge has increased 100%. They feel far better educated than they were before, because they are.
That said, they’re still terribly informed. They just feel like they know a lot. It takes a certain amount of intellect to know how dumb you are.
Which brings us to the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The psychologists tested subjects on various qualities — sense of humor, logic and grammar — and found that those who rated in the lowest quadrants tended to rank themselves as far above average. Incompetent people think that they’re better than they actually are. Not only were they poorly informed, they were too poorly informed to know that they were poorly informed.
How do we even begin to combat that? Well, some papers have said that it’s the responsibility of journalists to ensure that their information is fact-checked extensively. One great quote I remember is that, if you are a journalist, and one person says it’s raining, and another says it is not, it is not your job to present both views. It is your job to go out and see if it’s raining. And there are a lot of newspapers and publications, even those that do have partisan leanings, that try their damndest to do that: The Atlantic. The Washington Post. The New Yorker. The Wall Street Journal.
You know something those newspapers have in common? They’re behind paywalls. You can read your three articles a month for free, and then you have to pay. You know who you don’t have to pay to read? Publications who persistently fail fact checks . If you can read something you have to pay for, or read something you do not have to pay for, a lot of people will opt for the latter.
A good approach then, is that when you see something that seems like hyperbolic news, check to see if it’s been independently fact checked. You can check out Snopes, for instance, a publication whose only purpose is to verify widely circulated stories. Or you could embrace the fact that, at long last, Twitter is ensuring that the President’s tweets are based in reality. Facts, and checking them, should be uncontroversial.
No one likes to have the little knowledge they’ve obtained undermined. It makes them feel foolish.
And they’re smart, after all. They read an article. They know as much as the fact checkers. They know Thomas Jefferson will steal your bibles.