Wednesday, October 21, 2020

How New is Our Problem with Conspiracy Theories?

Farhad Manjoo has a story in the Times today about Joan Donovan and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, which she directs. The center has been compiling databases of information manipulation techniques, and they have just published the Media Manipulation Casebook, which you can find online. Perusing these case studies, Manjoo writes

Every day I grow more fearful that the number of those Americans will be large enough to imperil our nation’s capacity to function as a cohesive society.

Sometimes I worry about this, too. But other times I wonder how new any of this is, and whether our situation is as bad as it has been at some times in the past. Modern history is full of crazy beliefs, from the Great Fear during the French Revolution to magical water of the Mau Mau revolt against the British in Africa. Consider that in 1919-1920 the US was convulsed by a "Red Scare" that led to hundreds of violent attacks on immigrants, mass deportation of immigrant activists, and outright massacres of black citizens who were said to be joining the anarcho-communists in a war against white America. Nothing of comparable magnitude has happened over the past few years.

On the other hand there really was a Russian Revolution, and some immigrants really were left-wing agitators. So while the effects were much worse than, say, QAnon, you could argue that at least as it applied to European immigrants the Red Scare was more grounded in reality. So is there any sense in which our situation is worse than that? Are internet-driven conspiracy theories in some way more insidious, more dangerous, more complete than old-style conspiracy theories spread by newspapers or word of mouth?

Right now I feel like, no, they are not. Perhaps political craziness waxes and wanes somewhat over time, but it is always with us. We are irrational creatures, driven by tribalism and fear. We are going, sometimes, to believe crazy ideas and do crazy things. And if there is something weirdly insidious about the Internet as a way to coordinate and spread lies, and has so far not had any effects as awful as old conspiracy theories about Jews and slave revolts.

And it's not like the non-conspiratorial media are free from lies or manipulation. I personally found our national determination to invade Iraq in 2003 every bit as weird as QAnon, and a lot more alarming, And how about the belief on Wall Street that mortgage-backed bonds were safe? That did a lot more damage than QAnon has.

We all have to be on guard against false and foolish beliefs, all the time, and that includes things being pushed by "mainstream" politicians and newspapers. I don't say this to dismiss the danger of violent ideas being spread over the Internet, which have already led to many deaths. I just don't yet see that the Internet will lead to greater divorce from reality than we have already seen at many other times and places.


David said...

The question is, we don't know where QAnon is going to go. We are still in early days. Nazi antisemitism started as a lunatic fringe that accomplished little. The same could be said of Russian Marxism.

For that matter, I think events like the Red Scare and the Red Summer and Mau Mau and McCarthyism are all bad enough. I don't know what to say about someone who could like at the Chicago riot of 1919, or Tulsa in 1921, and sort of shrug and say, "that stuff happens." And in some cases I know, and in others I expect, that at least part of the reason they didn't amount to so much was because some people took them seriously and were alarmed, rather than reacting with John's bland complacency that it's all happened before. (People have smashed statues before too. So why should anyone care if they tear down statues of Ben Franklin? This stuff happens in history. Yet John obviously cares in spite of that.)

At this point, my trying to argue with John on this is clearly pointless. John's never going to get alarmed by the hard Right until Kristallnacht happens. Maybe it won't. I hope it doesn't. But even if it doesn't, I still won't respect this bland complacency about QAnon and its ilk, and nothing will ever convince me to.

David said...

I meant, someone who could LOOK at the Chicago riot. All writing programs need editing options.

G. Verloren said...

"I just don't yet see that the Internet will lead to greater divorce from reality than we have already seen at many other times and places."

Things happen much more rapidly, on a much larger scale, in the modern day. Problems can spiral out of control much more quickly and much more drastically.

In the past, a misinformation campaign had an uphill struggle - you have to get your message in front of the eyes of the people you want to fool, and in 1920 or whatever that meant convincing each and every separate newspaper all across the country to individually decide to give your message a platform.

But now, any anonymous nobody (and quite often literally nobody: a bot) can post flagrant misinformation onto social media platforms and garner untold millions of views well before any human being working for the company hosting that content can set eyes on it, fact-check it, and remove it.

You can send a message out to 100,000,000 people all across the country without needing anyone to sign off on it or give their permission. It might get taken down after the fact, but by then at least some real damage has already been done.

And you can repeat this tactic over and over, using automation and fake accounts, and always stay ten steps ahead of anyone who might want to stop you, because the internet's sheer capacity for volume overwhelms the human capacity to filter things.


But even putting that aside, even being generous and assuming that somehow the internet doesn't lead to a greater divorce from reality, there's still the issue of how much bigger of a deal said divorce from reality is in the modern day.

We live in an age where it is more vital than ever that our decisions be shaped by truth and reason, because events transpire so much more quickly and on so much more massive a scale than they did in the past.

We live in an age where the average person has much greater reach and influence than they did before, and where their ignorance or delusion can do much greater harm. You no longer need to gather an angry mob all in one place to ruin someone's life - they can gather virtually, from countless disparate points all across the country or even the globe, and take actions to harm innocent people.

Where before a single unhinged violent lunatic could only recruit people in person, restricted by geography and location, now that same individual can reach out to people anywhere with their dangerous rhetoric, and radicalize people from afar, and establish local cells and chapters of their movements in places they never would have sprung up previously due to proximity and isolation.

And the thing, we humans aren't good about separating truth from fiction. We are swayed easily by repetition, and recency bias, and all the rest.

We can't really tell the difference between an idea that's genuinely widespread and commonplace, and one that simply is given the appearance of such by a small but incredibly vocal minority shouting as loudly as the can, over and over. We tend to give the same weight to a statement made by a single person 100 times in a row, as we would to a statement that 100 different people make once once each.

And so the modern age has a much larger problem with echo chambers and false amplification - it is very easy to give the appearance of a far greater consensus than actually exists. And in so doing, you can actually sway people to your side!

We humans frequently make decisions based on how popular things appear. Someone who is on the fence about embracing extreme alt-right conspiracy theories will be far more likely to do so if they think lots of other people are also doing so.

In the past, it wasn't anywhere near as easy to sway people by exploiting these sorts of flaws in our thinking, because it was so much harder to give the false appearance of consensus where none actually exists, and so much easier to disprove.

JustPeachy said...

Qanon is basically a reincarnation of the rapture/apocalypse mania that gripped evangelical circles back in the 90s. Different storyline, same dynamic: "we have all this secret knowledge here in our club, and when it's finally revealed to the world in all its glory, won't you all be sorry?"

It is amazing how waiting for the apocalypse saps everyone of the energy to do anything about their current, actual lives. I'd be worried if they were actually making plans, instead of simply gloating to each other about how very, very, smart they are, using their secret decoder rings to figure out the sooper secret Q puzzle. I wonder what they get when they send in their UPCs and $3 shipping... (eye rolling) The big takeaway from Q is: the bad guys are gonna get what's coming to them. Just you wait!

In a chaotic world, where all the big players have hidden motives, the Q game is, I guess, comforting to many people. They feel like they know something. Gives them a sense of agency.

Sad waste of time, IMO. I've poked around the phenomenon, to get a feel for what it *is*, and... it's a bunch of people who spend 20+ hours a week on the internet chasing down the latest number coincidences and clues, AFAICT. One suspects people who are OMG SCARED of the Q thing, simply haven't looked into it much.

Friggin SEVEN captcha screens that time!

JustPeachy said...

@David re: Kristallnacht

Is it the left or the right that is running around busting up windows right now?

G. Verloren said...

"Sad waste of time, IMO. I've poked around the phenomenon, to get a feel for what it *is*, and... it's a bunch of people who spend 20+ hours a week on the internet chasing down the latest number coincidences and clues, AFAICT. One suspects people who are OMG SCARED of the Q thing, simply haven't looked into it much."

They might seem harmless, until you remember that they literally tried to abduct and murder the Governor of Michigan.

If your neighbor spends all their time looking for secret messages from aliens in their breakfast cereal, you might think they're a lunatic, but a harmless one.

But when that same neighbor starts using those "secret messages" as justification to take to the streets brandishing an assault rifle and threatening to kill people, you'd have to be crazy or stupid not to be seriously concerned.

These people literally conspired to attempt to assassinate a democratically elected leader, and you discount them as harmless and unworthy of your consideration? What the hell is wrong with you? How unfathomably out of touch are you?

G. Verloren said...

Is it the left or the right that is running around busting up windows right now?

Kristallnacht was when right-wing Germans attacked innocent Jews out of racist motivations, while the police and authorities stood by and did nothing.

Are you seriously suggesting that left-wing Americans, protesting racially motivated police brutality and abuse of authority, and being opposed by brutal police crackdowns against their peaceful demonstrations and police-employed agent provocateurs intentionally trying to incite violence, is somehow remotely comparable?

Because the proper comparison is to the people you're writing off as harmless: the gun-toting right-wing paramilitary thugs with racist motivations who are threatening to attack and kill innocent people, knowing that the police likely stand by and do nothing.

You might want to stop leaping to the defense of violent racists and trying to vilify peaceful protesters who just want to not be murdered by the police. It's not a good look, and people might start to think you're a Fascist sympathizer.'re not a Fascist sympathizer, right?


JustPeachy said...

I report what I see with my own eyes.

And then, predictably:

You're raaaacist! You're faaaascist!

Do those words have any meaning anymore, beyond "I don't like you because you disagree with me"? Call me whatever you like. I've been through hell and come out the other side already. You don't frighten me.

Apologies, John, I love your posts (particularly the art and archaeology! Thanks!), but your combox is not worth the trouble. I have to do 5-7 rounds of find-the-bus/motorcycle/crosswalk per comment, only to be abused by fellow commenters. I am reminded that there are other things calling for my time. Best wishes, and God bless you.

G. Verloren said...

>literally compares BLM protests to Kristallnacht
>gets upset when people suggest that smacks of sympathies for Racism and Fascism
>argues that Racism and Fascism don't even mean anything anymore, and thus can't apply

"When in doubt, deny all terms and definitions."

szopen said...

"police-employed agent provocateurs intentionally trying to incite violence,"

And Russian parachuters. Don't forget about them.

John said...


No, I'm not scared of right-wing fanatics in America. Nor of anti-fa. Not because I think everything is good in the world, but because I think things are pretty bad in the world, and American extremists are only a very small part of the badness. I think worrying about militias in Michigan could very well just distract us from all the things that I think are far worse. Like, the US and China playing great power gunboat games in the South China Sea. Nigeria on the verge of civil war. Millions of Syrian refugees with no place to go. The Mexican government controlled by drug cartels. Opioid addiction. Superhuman AI. I could spend all day listing things I fear much more than American extremists.

I think our pulling out of the nuclear framework deal with Iran was far, far more dangerous for humanity than Boogaloo boys.

I despise Trump, but nothing he has done has been anywhere near as consequential or destructive as Bush's invasion of Iraq. Which was supported by the Post, the Times, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, etc., an event that seems to have inflicted lifelong damage on my willingness to trust the liberal establishment.

I don't see the Red Scare as something that just happened, any more than I see World War I as something that just happened. I am trying to put our current fears in context. And to me, the situation in America now is a lot less scary than it was in 1920. Maybe that's a very low bar, but we do have lots of people claiming that there is something unique and new about our problem with fake news and conspiracy theories.

I also recognize that the Red Scare ended in part because some brave people stood up against it; I wrote here about one of them, Labor Secretary Louis Post. But one could argue that the most important voice against the Red Scare was that of Warren Harding, who won the 1920 Republican nomination over a bunch of anti-Red loudmouths by proclaiming a "return to normalcy." Could Joe Biden be our Harding? Hmmmm.

I do not see American Nazism as a realistic threat. I get that you do, but it is just not something I think likely enough to worry over. Not that such people aren't dangerous; as I have said, and am all for sending the FBI after them in a big way, even if that leads to some erosion of civil rights for the rest of us. We have to fight terrorism. But experience suggests that we do have the necessary tools to do so, and that in a few years the Wolverine Militia will have gone the way of the Weathermen.

But I do, as all my readers know, worry about partisanship in America. Which is why I advocate for Neville-Chamberlain-esque things like figuring out what conservatives care about and trying to make deals with them. Yes, I worry about right-wing fear and anger. Not especially the militias, who are buffoons our state could crush any time we decide to. But about the tens of millions of voters who feel utterly divorced from our politics and culture. That is where the threat is. I can think of two ways to reduce that threat: practical measures like more jobs and better healthcare, and a serious program of trying to treat everyone with respect. I do not wish to fight conservatism, and I do not think it is necessary to do so. I think we can make peace with conservatism at a price far lower than we will pay for ever-increasing conflict and hostility. I think Trump is part of the price America has paid and will continue to pay for our unwillingness to respect each other and our inability to work together toward things most Americans say they want. I think much of that fault lies with the Republican Party, including the establishment types who are horrified by Trump. But I think there is plenty of blame to go around.

John said...


Absolutely, violence by rioters is the same as violence by police. It's all wrong, and it all hurts democracy and reform. What did the owners of those stores, many of them minorities or immigrants, do to deserve having their windows smashed and their goods stolen? Why are they legitimate targets for anger against thuggish cops and their supporters?

Violence is violence, and most of the time it leads not to justice but to more violence. And in a democracy like ours, every violent act by protesters is a boon to the defenders of racism and police power. Study after study of the 1960s has shown that while peaceful protests helped the cause of reform, violence did nothing but turn people against it.

Yes, much of the recent violence was caused, wholly or partly, by the police themselves. Why would they do that? Maybe because they like violence. A violent confrontation is something they are trained to deal with, something they are comfortable with. Some of them like having an excuse to beat up people they despise, and their leaders know that in the long run riots help them. Heck, we had senior conservatives confessing this on the news, fantasizing that enough violence would assure Trump's re-election. Why would reformers want to give the establishment exactly what it wants?

Morally and politically, non-violence is the answer. Rioting is a crime and, worse than a crime, a blunder.

David said...


Your response to me is very judicious and most interesting. I've already read and reread it several times. It's the kind of thing that, I think, needs to be stated clearly (and, by readers, taken seriously).

I don't disagree with much of what you say. I would agree that, in the final analysis, the Iraq invasion was much worse that anything that's happened since. At the same time, for better or worse, it obviously didn't wound my trust in the liberal establishment the way your trust was wounded.

I would agree that pulling out of the deal with Iran is probably the most dangerous thing Trump has done (I only say probably because no one can tell the future--it is possible that the whole thing can be finessed and put away by a new president, but also possible that a new president will not be able to do a salutary reset--but it was a very, very bad thing to do, no question).

I would agree that liberals and conservatives need to find some way to make compromises that, inevitably, are going to be called Neville Chamberlainesque by some on both sides.

I would say, however, that there's a difference between making pragmatic compromises that can help keep the peace, and giving too much intellectual leeway, or benefit of the doubt, to certain types of dangerous discourses. You yourself don't seem too motivated to give Bill Barr's theories on the American Revolution much room for consideration, and for good reason. I would be *happy* to compromise with religious people who feel alienated and excluded. But Bill Barr isn't just a simple guy who cares about his religion. Ultimately, what compromise is there to make with a theory like his? I would put QAnon in the same column.

On the specific issues with the Farhad Manjoo column, I think we all recognize that conspiracy theories have been a problem before. For some of us, that's what alarms us about them. They remind us of conspiracy theories that have become, against all odds, very powerful and dangerous.

I would also say that, to be fair to Manjoo and especially Joan Donovan, their concern is specifically whether *internet-era social media* makes conspiracy theories and inflammatory rumors more dangerous in a place like the US than they were before. The answer, of course, is nobody really knows yet, but I think you have to allow that there *may be* something to what they're saying. Social media has already been linked to specific atrocities in places like Sri Lanka. Modern crises are not *just* about profound problems of alienation that good people should solve. They are *also* about the way technology can give a few fanatics the capacity to mobilize masses to commit atrocities (consider, for example, the role of that famous Radio of a Thousand Hills in the Rwanda genocide).

G. Verloren said...


People riot for reasons, though. And it's disingenuous at best to blame the rioters but not the people and institutions that pushed them to riot.

"No Justice, No Peace" is a powerful statement - one that is arguably more powerful than "No Taxation Without Representation", another slogan that arose in a time of strife, employed by people demanding justice and willing to fight and die for it.

People put the "Founding Fathers" up on pedestals, talking about how great they and their cause were, when in reality their actions arguably boil down to engaging in armed insurrection over mere taxes and local autonomy. Seems a bit excessive.

Meanwhile, African Americans are protesting the fact that they literally being murdered in the streets by the government, and you condemn them for the violence that occurs when they are pushed to the breaking point by a corrupt police system brimming with racist thugs?

The Boston Massacre gets held up and lionized - brave Americans brutally killed by cruel and callous British soldiers. Nevermind that the Americans formed an angry mob armed with weapons, and intentionally attacked a heavily outnumbered patrol of British soldiers, prompting them to open fire. That part's unimportant, it seems.

When it's people you idolize committing the violence, it's patriotic heroism and a defense of democracy against tyranny. But when it's people you don't care about committing the violence, it's a crime and a blunder. Rank hypocrisy.

And even more hypocritical is failing (refusing?) to recognize that the overwhelming majority of BLM protests have been peaceful, orderly, lawful affairs.

Yes, there have been flash points of violence - but they are the exception, and our laws are being enforced and the perpetrators of said violence being duly tried.

Yes, as you say, crimes and blunders have been committed and made - but that doesn't reflect upon or somehow invalidate the non-criminal protests, or their just cause.

Yes, there are arguably bigger issues in the world today - but you're invoking a classic fallacy, indefensibly arguing that because there are other problems in the world, these problems aren't worth addressing or working to solve.

Yes, both sides are in the wrong to some extent - but one side is far more in the wrong, that fact has to be acknowledged, and action must be taken to change things.\

Time and again, you defend injustices by pointing to different injustices.

Time and again, you argue that we don't need to take action, we don't need to reform, we just need to all go back to the civil, simple, predictable status quo, and if innocent people get brutalized and victimized under that system, oh well, that's just the price of doing business.

Time and again, you talk about the "Founding Fathers" as great heroes who had the guts to combat awful tyranny, but then turn around and condemn people for not being "civil" and "peaceful" enough in their opposition to grievous government abuses.

Do you not see a problem with that?