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No wonder conspiracy theories are suddenly everywhere — our social media platforms reward inflammatory content


It began innocently enough. An old high school friend began posting cryptic messages to Facebook — that something big was about to happen, and that we should look to the skies. Then it started to get stranger and more disturbing: first that Bill Gates was lying about something, then that the pandemic was a hoax. Most recently, he posted that the Capitol attack was the work of, and I quote, “Antifa Marxists.”

It was an unsettling reminder that conspiracy thinking is everywhere. Fuelled by the bubbles of Facebook groups and forums all over the web, bizarre, baffling theories like QAnon or COVID-19 as a hoax seem to swallow people up. On Reddit, there is even a whole section dedicated to people who have lost loved ones down the rabbit holes of these delusions.

This is the dynamic of our intellectual landscape now. Not only must we contend with the rise of extremism and inflamed rhetoric, but also fringe thinking entirely disconnected from reality.

My solution to my former friend’s ravings was simple enough: I just muted him. But while it’s easy to cut out obviously false ideas from your life, a more insidious problem is ideas just shy of that threshold.

Consider: last week, former Ontario chief medical officer Dr. Richard Schabas suggested that the Ford government’s lockdown wasn’t based in good science. It caught me off guard. While I have learned to dismiss people who start rambling on about lockdowns denying people their freedom or being more harm than good, here was a legitimate medical professional arguing that we should at least consider that our approach has been wrong.

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Whether or not Schabas is correct is, unlike conspiracy theories, worthy of debate. The question, then: how, in an era in which both good and bad ideas merge into social-media cacophony, is one supposed to separate the ridiculous from the merely unpopular or unorthodox?

Both conspiracy theorists and extremists take up the mantle of the “heterodox thinker,” whether or not the label truly applies. For example, the right side of the spectrum is full of people claiming to be the last bastion of independent thinking, but in truth, seem simply unable to separate out rare moments of overzealous wokeness from theories about how milquetoast diversity initiatives are actually Stalinism in disguise.

It’s indicative of a hyper-partisan environment online, a situation that often makes it difficult for reasonable thinkers to distinguish extreme ideas from things either more ordinary, or unusual but nonetheless worth considering.

Because what it also points to is that when one is bombarded with opinion and ideas, much of them awful and ludicrous, a shortcut to separating wheat from chaff is to dismiss out of hand those ideas that come from people who one can safely label not worth listening to. It isn’t so much an intellectual strategy as a survival mechanism, a kind of tactic to deal with the bombardment of stuff that is one’s online newsfeed.

What ends up happening is that it becomes easier to judge ideas less by content and more by affiliation — by who holds them rather than the ideas themselves. And while that may have once been intellectually suspect, when it is as easy to come across ridiculous notions as it is well thought out concepts, it’s understandable that we think of terms of teams rather than rigour.

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That context has made how ideas enter public consciousness or become popular more important in recent years. Many people have latched on to the idea of the Overton window: the range of acceptable policies that the public allows at a given time. That window shifts, and is often pulled by the edge of discourse. For example, just a couple of years ago the idea of defunding the police or, even more radically, police abolition was mostly confined to academia and hard-left activists. But in 2020, the continent’s biggest newspapers ran op-eds about just those ideas.

But if that is a positive example, what happens when it becomes hard to distinguish revolutionary ideas from ludicrous ones?

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In no small part, the fault here lies at the feet of big tech companies and the way in which their incentive-based structure prioritizes the most inflammatory content. It has muddied the intellectual waters, placing conspiracies next to peer-reviewed papers and making it hard to tell one from the other. Then there are the numerous bad actors and, well, also all of us, struggling to make our voices heard, and ratcheting up our rhetoric to its most extreme to cut through the noise.

It was easy to mute my former high school friend, but the upending of our intellectual landscape is a problem far more difficult to solve. There is a long term, complex project to be undertaken to establish trust in media and experts versus the once-promising free-for-all of the web. If we don’t, I fear it will be all too easy for solid ideas to get lost and conspiracies to become dominant — for what is good and true to get lost in an ocean of people, all screaming that they alone have found the truth, drowning out what is actually going on.

Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance contributing technology columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang
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