investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Don’t Get Caught in the Web of Conspiracy Truthiness

In Previously published on April 10, 2013 at 10:19 pm

This article was first published in The Age on November 5, 2010.
To see the original article click here

 

ABC Melbourne broadcaster Jon Faine got into a stoush a couple of weeks ago with the  September 11 conspiracy movement. It was entertaining talkback radio, but the phenomenon of large numbers of people willing to believe dastardly things — even in the face of solid, contradictory evidence — was scary and depressing.

(Conspiracy sympathisers: please read to the end before you unleash the flame campaign.)

Here’s how it unfolded: while locking horns with Faine on some other, now-forgotten issue, Kevin Bracken, president of the Victorian Trades Hall and secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, let slip that he didn’t believe the official version of what happened on September 11, 2001.

Faine leapt on Bracken like a barracuda on a sprat. And quite rightly, too: 9/11 conspiracy theory is a load of twaddle. Some of it is laced with malicious intent; some is fed by ignorance; and much is the embodiment of natural anxiety voiced by well-meaning folk who worry that they can’t trust their government or media to tell the truth.

A barrage of calls followed during talkback and continued for several days (many more, I understand, didn’t go to air). Furious conspiracy believers accused Faine of censoring the truth about September 11 and of complicity in the cover-up; some callers said conspiracy believers are stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to poison the airwaves with their idiotic ideas because they’re dangerous; others said conspiracy believers are stupid but should be allowed to fill the airwaves with their idiotic ideas because we still live in a democracy.

Several callers claimed that 50 per cent of people in Australia and the US do not accept the official account of what happened on September 11. If true, that’s a huge number, and we have to wonder why and how people’s trust in the established organs of society can become so warped.

My theory is that it has something to do with how the brain works and with how internet search works.

Scratch a conspiracy sympathiser and you usually find a natural cynic, a person who likes to think of themselves as a free-thinking individual, or someone with a deep-seated anxiety about the world. Sometimes they are combinations of all three. This is because their intellectual approach to the world is shaped by their amygdala — also known as the ‘‘lizard brain’’ — the oldest and most primitive part of the brain that controls our survival instinct. When the amygdala kicks in, emotion overrules reason and rational thought leaves the building.

The amygdala punches above its weight and has an excessive influence on our behaviour and beliefs. This makes sense in evolutionary terms: out on the savanna it’s in our interests to recognise every potential threat, otherwise that tawny shadow creeping through the long grass might be the last thing we see.

The downside is that it’s much harder to undo opinions that have fear at their core; they are immune to reason and facts. (These effects of the amygdala can become ingrained in cultures and societies, not just individuals. It plays a role in everything from racism to the strife in the Middle East.)

When our lizard brain takes over it puts us on edge, makes us want to find the threat, expose it and fight it — to the death, if necessary.

And that’s why there’s often a whiff of the manic in the voices of those presenting 9/11 conspiracy theories: the conspiracist believes that at some level, to some degree, their survival is at stake. And when politicians and media don’t give them voice they feel more threatened, more suspicious, cornered, helpless; and so they go on the attack.

Naturally, those wired with a predisposition for cynicism/anxiety/independent thought find comfort in theories of the world that reinforce how they feel. Here the internet plays a role.

Search results for information about conspiracy theories are distorted — distorted by fear (which shapes the approach used by the person searching) and distorted by the paradigms used by search engines.

A Google search for ‘‘9/11’’ brings up 115,000,000 results. The first is a Wikipedia entry about the attacks. The second is a Wikipedia entry about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Next come links to YouTube videos ‘‘exposing’’ the truth about 9/11; then entries for websites dedicated to archiving ‘‘facts’’ about the events of the day, links to various branches of the 9/11 Truth Movement and so on. That fills the first page of results and countless more pages filled with the same kind of results follow. The report of the 9/11 Commission — the official account of the events, which took three years to compile and is based on thousands of interviews and examination of evidence — doesn’t get a look-in.

The problem is that the high ranking of conspiracy theories resulting from a search is mistaken as authority when all it indicates is popularity of the search term and the websites visited. Just because something is widely believed doesn’t mean something is true; and just because conspiracy theories about 9/11 rank high on search results only means that lots of people are curious about them. Search engines tend to look for what other people are looking for and to throw those result higher. After a certain tipping point a topic’s popularity becomes self-fulfilling.

People too often use the internet to reinforce their ‘‘feeling’’ that something is true. (To describe this flawed kind of reasoning, American comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term  ‘‘truthiness’’ — the ‘‘truth’’ a person claims to know intuitively ‘‘from the gut’’ without being based on evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. Truthiness is the amygdala in action.) The internet’s democratic nature — with its widespread tools for communicating and organising — means fringe ideas can coalesce and find traction when they might not have in previous times. The internet then becomes an echo chamber for crackpot ideas and misinformation, creating ghettos of poorly reasoned opinion. Contrary ideas that wander into these ghettos are bashed and abused, tarred and feathered and dumped on the outskirts of town. Look like us, sound like us or get the hell out of here. It’s an unfortunate but widespread kind of human behaviour.

And so it is with 9/11 conspiracy theories. Never before has bad information been able to be distributed so far, so quickly, to such a receptive audience.

To properly understand an issue requires an open mind, willingness to look objectively at both sides of an issue and good judgment to assess the information found. The internet too easily steers those who’ve already made up their minds in directions that confirm their biases, and to the exclusion of alternative ideas.

To get useful answers to legitimate questions requires a rigorous, honest approach on the part of the investigator. My advice:

* When researching anything on the internet, don’t go looking for information that simply reinforces what you already believe (or ‘‘feel’’) to be true.
* Don’t mistake questions about an event for proof that something dastardly happened.
* Don’t think that the number of hits on a subject makes it more authoritative than another.

On that last point, consider this: a Google search for ‘‘9/11 conspiracy’’ yields 4,660,000 results. A search for ‘‘the earth is flat’’ throws up 56,500,000 results.

I’m just saying.

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