Lance Lawton, recently retired Anglican Minister who blogs at fullofgraceandtruth has been examining the ideas that fuel conspiracy theories and finding them wanting. He peers into the gap between social media and truth. and discovers five false premises.
Part 1 of this essay is here.
Premise #4: If there’s a vast corpus of information attesting to some social trend, phenomenon or conspiracy, and a large community certain
of its reality, then there must be something in it.
Perhaps a reasonable deduction before the digital age? But the internet keeps eight billion humans drowning in information, and the tide isn’t going out. The ’net is full of conflicting claims about what’s true and real in the world. Some can be harmonised, but many cannot. Some sets of claims can’t both be true. It’s possible that one is true or that neither is. It’s not possible that both (or all) are true.
This phenomenon operates on multiple levels. Everything from who or what allegedly controls the world to one person’s claims about themselves or their neighbour (e.g. academic or professional expertise).
The task for the shell-shocked enquirer is then to decide which set of claims and beliefs is true and which isn’t. That can be very hard to do, and even harder to get right. Just as most criminals look just like you, me and the next-door neighbour in real life, so most people who post falsehoods on the internet sound just as honest and sincere as your grandfather, sister or best friend. And centuries of mechanical news and information media delivered by the professional few have conditioned us to believe that at least say 95% of what’s reported is true. There’s only so much falsehood that can be spread only so far when delivered by only a few messengers who are accountable. Through no one’s fault, it turns out that the pre-digital days have prepared us poorly for the new age of online news and information, in which everyone with a Twitter account can sound like an expert and may consider themselves such as well.
Typically where two beliefs or belief systems are in conflict, especially on the internet — Both competing “truths” claim to be true with equal passion, eloquence, assumed authority, internal coherence and apparent credibility. Both may rank high in search engines. And both have a very large following, including plenty of highly intelligent people. Since the two are conflicting, none of those qualities can necessarily settle the matter. Perhaps they once reasonably could? But in the digital age especially, it’s entirely possible to be all of those things and yet either innocently deceived or willfully deceptive.
For example, many of the popular ‘antivax’ or Covid ‘sceptic’ beliefs are internally coherent and thus compelling. But sincere, coherent and compelling doesn’t equal proven. They commonly rest on some or all of the premises addressed here.
It’s for just these reasons that the last decade has seen a proliferation of Fact-Checking websites and services. Like any genre, they vary in quality, but there are several excellent and well-established ones. (And don’t forget Wikipedia, by the way). The habit of verifying online claims by a search on one or more of those sites, or even just directly in a Google search box (include the words ‘fact check’) , is a wise one to develop.
Of course, fact-checks face the same challenges as any other online information. If someone is untrusting of any and all claims they disagree with, they’ll readily dismiss the fact-check itself as “biased” or “lies”. This happens often. But that needn’t unsettle the rest of us.
Impasse #4: More information does not equal more truth or more fact
Premise #5: It’s a practical possibility and reality that certain inconvenient truths are being suppressed on a large, indeed global, scale by the entirety of the
world’s traditional media outlets, editors and journalists, across all nations, political systems, biases and alliances.
Is there information ‘out there’ (internet, social media, etc) that’s rarely or never reported or covered in the general media? Yes indeed; and on a voluminous scale. Does that silence constitute blindness, censorship or suppression? Well in principle it could be one or more of those, at least in some cases. But it can only be so if the never-published material is both true and provable. If it isn’t the former, as it well may not be (see all the above) then the ‘silent’ journos are doing just as they should protecting democracy, even if some folk are convinced otherwise. In plainest terms, being on the internet and widely believed doesn’t make a thing true (again, see above). In fact, it would at least be prudent not to take its truth for granted.
Second, regardless of whether or not it’s true in reality, if it isn’t provable then other constraints on the professional media come into play. For instance, we have civil legal protections to discourage the publication of false or unprovable allegations about a person or collective. Journalists and editors are liable to incur career-destroying or profit-destroying fines if they or their expensive lawyers can’t persuade a judge or jury that the unflattering material they published was the truth. In contrast, an anonymous 16-year-old blogger and wannabe ‘investigative journalist’ with 100,000 Twitter followers poring over Google and YouTube in their parents’ garage, is both free of any professional constraints and most unlikely ever to have their laptop seized by federal police in a 4 am raid. (And if it did happen, chances are daddy would pay the fine). Neither any care nor any responsibility, in other words. That modus operandi doesn’t make them a soldier in the cause of truth, however many people believe them.
I’ve had a number of conversations on this subject. For illustration, a common exchange goes something along the following lines (though usually more nuanced and much more drawn out) …
‘Jack’: The MSM have a lot to answer for, the way they suppress the truth.
Lance: That’s interesting, Jack. Can you give me an example?
‘Jack’: Sure! Where do I start!? Umm … well, you’ve never seen any mention on the ABC or even Sky News about the way the US government orchestrated 9/11, now have you?
Lance: No, I guess not. But tell me, how do you know that’s true?
‘Jack’: How do I know?! Well gee, everyone knows that. And anyway the ‘lamestream’ media never report it. What more proof would you need?
In other words, with the sincerest respect for those who’ve thoughtfully come to the view that there’s a whole body of truth ‘the media’ don’t want us to hear, nearly all the conversations I’ve had or listened to about ‘the mainstream media’ hiding the truth have had that circular reasoning kind of character about them. The fact it’s all over the internet and never in the media proves the media are hiding it from us, and the fact that it isn’t in the media proves it’s true. Circular reasoning.
Impasse #5: Suppression is not the likeliest explanation for the lack of media coverage.
What I’ve tried to do has been to outline five premises that are increasingly being adopted largely uncritically as factual representations of the political shape of life in our world. They portend ever-increasing division and distrust, which ought to concern us all. I contend that none of the five premises withstands scrutiny (or they don’t “pass the pub test”, to borrow a currently popular Aussie idiom). And my “five impasses” are one attempt to concisely capture this.
Lastly, I want to make it plain that in my assessment the clear majority of people who accept any or all of the premises are neither evil nor stupid nor ‘loopy’. Rather they are sincere, thoughtful and responsible citizens, who in their genuine care for the world, its people and their friends and loved ones, have found in these premises something persuasive that somehow resonates. How and why that’s so is I suspect another big subject, and probably well beyond my pay grade. At any rate, I believe they’ve been misled and I’d want them set free from what is the real tyranny of our age. But neither their genuineness nor their intelligence are in doubt for me.
1 This can be especially useful having encountered a claimed or professing scientific authority, particularly if the narrative includes a complaint that they’re being ignored or ‘silenced’. Chances are high that they’re being ignored because they’re not in fact the expert they claim to be. Fact-checking will usually weed them out.
3 Social media is awash with them!
4 Random common name for illustration only