The Trump administration ushered in the era of alternative facts, aka misinformation. From space lasers, lizard people, Qanon, and the “stop the steal” movement, the Trump administration embraced this new post truth “reality.” While conspiracy theorists have always existed, this era has brought insanity into the mainstream. But why does misinformation spread so easily in the digital age, and what can we do about it?
The post truth era is perhaps no better embodied than in the “Stop the Steal” movement that resulted in an insurrection attempt on Capitol Hill. The Stop the Steal riots were motivated by a conspiracy theory alleging that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump. This conspiracy started with allegations of rigged mail-in votes but soon morphed into a vast conspiracy, including laughable allegations of North Korean ships importing ballots through Maine, sharpies, Dominion election machines rigged by a late Hugo Chavez, and nefarious activity on behalf of Governor Kemp in Georgia, the CIA, Attorney General Barr, and even Vice President Pence...just to name a few.
Indeed, the “stolen election” conspiracy is so complex and convoluted that it is evidently clear that the conspiracy believers piled on new allegations almost by the day, to counter a shrinking narrative. Each allegation, if addressed individually, can be disputed successfully. The problem, or perhaps, the advantage, of this conspiracy theory, is that the sheer number of allegations make it impossible to counter completely.
The Gish Gallop
There is an oral debate tactic known as the Gish Gallop, where a debater throws out as many claims as possible in the shortest period of time, with no regard to their accuracy or strength. The purpose of the Gish Gallop is to overwhelm the opponent with far too much information such that they are unable to counter each point made. To outsiders who may be ill-informed on the topic being debated, it may appear that the person engaging in the Gallop won the debate, when in reality he merely overwhelmed the opponent with useless information.
The Gish Gallop leverages Brandolini’s Law, otherwise aptly known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, which states that while making a claim is easy, quick, and requires little effort, disputing said claim with factual information is an order of magnitude more difficult. If you overwhelm the public with claims, it quickly becomes impossible for the media, fact-checkers, and writers like myself to effectively examine, research, and verify those claims. Hence, the asymmetry between truth and lies.
This is the same reason that reputable news sources online are often hidden behind paywalls, while questionable content is free; it takes time and money to do actual journalism, but anyone can write “fake news.”
Brandolini’s Law is amplified by social media, internet forums, and search engines. From there, confirmation bias takes over. It is natural for humans to seek out information that confirms what they already believe. In the social media realm, however, this enables like-minded people to hive themselves off into filter bubbles. These bubbles soon become echo chambers were its members reinforce each other in a shared delusion, aiding one another as they spiral down rabbit holes of their own construction.
At the other end of these rabbit holes, the Earth is flat, CNN anchors eat babies, and the inauguration of Biden was filmed on a sound stage. As crazy as it may sound, those who come out the other end of the rabbit hole are absolutely certain of one thing: they know the “truth” and everyone else is “sheep.”
Western Civilization at Stake
How can civilization carry on in a post truth world? The simple answer is that it cannot. Civilization as we know it requires that, although we may have different opinions, we must all agree on certain inalienable truths. This means, society must find a way to counter misinformation...and fast.
Conspiracy theories and false beliefs are not the sole domain of the American Right. Indeed, misinformation is often just as pervasive on the Left. After all, both the far left and the far right are beholden to their own forms of collective extremism, even if they differ considerably from one another in ideology.
We may be tempted to “censor” false information online, but in a Western country like the United States, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of restricting access to information. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the “censoring” of information could draw more attention to it, and “validate” the conspiracy in the minds of true believers.
There are more practical and less intrusive means of countering misinformation. First we need a renewed emphasis on critical thinking skills in our schools. We shouldn’t teach our students what to think, but we do need to teach them how to think with health skepticism. Second, it is important to recognize our own fallibility. We are born with a predisposition toward confirmation bias, and although we cannot alter our biology, we can become cognizant of our human limitations. This goes a long way. Finally, we need to bust the filter bubbles that harbor these destructive echo-chambers. New legislation should require that online platforms use algorithms that do not placate primordial tendencies toward confirmation bias, but instead feed users a steady diet of balanced information.
If Western society does not confront these challenges now, civilization may not continue into the 22nd Century. This is not meant to be alarmist, just brutally honest.