Even a casual browse through the web will yield to how much of a hotbed it is for fringe views and conspiracy theories. There are numerous websites, blogs, and forum devoted to espousing just about every peripheral view imaginable, from old-fashioned diatribes about Zionist world domination to the relatively recent notion of a New World Order, which itself is just a re-imagining of previous variations of an elite plot to takeover the globe. There is so much overlap and convergence between all the various conspiracy theories out there that it’s becoming difficult to demarcate between them.
Interestingly, they all draw from a central theme involving some secretive and powerful class – be they of Jews, the Illuminati, aliens, or even all of the above – trying to control the world, if not doing so already. A visceral distrust of any sort of authority, combined with paranoia about the machinations or intentions of powerful institutions or people, underline ever conspiracy theory. The rise of globalization, along with increasing public concern about the role of government and big corporations, have added more fuel – and some would say proof – to the claims about some impending new world order.
But nothing has contributed more than the internet, has allowed such views to spread, develop, become as close to mainstream as possible. Indeed, while some manner of conspiracy-oriented thinking has always existed, it is a largely modern phenomenon, and it’s becoming more so with time. The same internet that has exposed billions of people to the sum of all the knowledge of human endeavor is also subjecting them to ideas that are dangerous, unfounded, false, or just plain nonsensical.
The Foreign Policy article that inspired this post, titled Dangerous Minds, not only details the rise of fringe views, but rightly identifies them as a symptom of a larger problem: our inability to come to terms with the data overload that now characterizes the contemporary world.
A report released last week by the British think tank Demos takes a different line. It argues that the Internet’s greatest strength — free access to unprecedented amounts of unregulated information — can also be asphyxiating. Too many young people do not know what to believe online, and as a result they are influenced by information they probably ought to discard. The era of mass, unmediated information needs to be attended by a new educational paradigm based on a renewal of critical, skeptical thought fit for the online age.
The sheer amount of material at our fingertips today is unfathomable, like trying to imagine the number of stars in the universe. When we fire up a browser, we can choose from more than 250 million websites and 150 million blogs, and the numbers are growing. A whole day’s worth of YouTube footage is uploaded every minute. The online content created last year alone was several million times more than is contained in every single book ever written. Much of this content consists of trustworthy journalism, niche expertise, and accurate information. But there is an equal measure of mistakes, half-truths, propaganda, misinformation, and general nonsense.
Trying to separate the information wheat from the disinformation chaff has always been difficult — the Greeks were at least as exercised about it as we are. But the Internet makes it more difficult because it throws up novel challenges that require at least some ration of technical savvy.
What is true is largely becoming a subjective matter, and the problem of discerning fact or fiction is resolved in one of two ways: people respond either by being uncommitted and indecisive about most ideas or positions (post-modernism or nihilism comes to mind), or taking an absolutist view which simplifies matters through adherence to a single truth (again, conspiracy theorist, as well as religious fundamentalists and ideological dogmatists).
The prevalence of either faction is troubling: either we become detached from decision making or the world as a whole – a dangerous prospect given all the global problems we’re facing – or we split up into intolerant and parochial factions, which will not only ignore evidence contrary to their views but engage in hostilities with one another. In many ways, our world is already drifting in both directions: some people are growing more cynical and apathetic towards social and political issues, while others are reverting to nationalism, extremism, or militant faith.
As in most matters, I find myself in the middle. I think some truths clearly exist, and can be validated. Sometimes these truths change with higher reasoning or new evidence, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any fact – merely that the facts change with time, new knowledge, or the progression of society. On that basis, I don’t believe in an absolute following of any political or dogmatic belief, as such closed-mindedness can leave one blind to new evidence and perspective that may provide crucial insights to a particular issue. That sort of thinking also breeds the sort of uncompromising intolerance that will do us no favors in a diverse world that requires unity in tackling all sorts of worldwide problems.
I worry about the effects all this will have on younger people, who are becoming to first to have grown up exclusively in a digital age. I still remember having to dig through books for sources and citations, and going to libraries to collect research material. Now the internet has become part and parcel of any search for knowledge, be it personal or academic. Again, this is a wonderful thing, but only if you know what you’re doing.
Teenagers facing this avalanche of data are struggling to deal with it. They are often unable to find the information they are looking for or trust the first thing they do. They do not fact-check what they read and are unable to recognize online bias and propaganda — and teachers are worried about the effect this is having. Around half of the teachers polled for the study had encountered arguments about conspiracy theories with their students (such as those surrounding the 9/11 attacks), and the same proportion report pupils bringing dubious Internet-based content into the classroom.
Young people are overwhelmed, and in their formative years they’re starting to drift into either of the two sides I noted earlier. What effect this will have on the future of politics and society is anyone’s guess. For all I know, concerns about this are overblown and it’s a non-issue. After all, we’ve always been perennially worried about the advent of new technology, from the creation of written texts to the development of mass printing. Dopes, liars, and madmen have always existed, and always will. Like any new technology or development, we’ll just come to adapt to it eventually, right?
Who knows. I for one think we shouldn’t overreact to this problem, but shouldn’t be complacent either. Reasoned caution never hurts. What’s interesting is that a lot of fringe thinkers do, in theory, largely agree with me. To them, there is a problem with a lack of critical thinking; we do need changes to the way we study and understand sources, claims, and data; and we do have a problem with separating fact or fiction. The difference is that they think they’re the ones exercising critical thinking and comprehending the system, and everyone else is being blind or manipulated.
In a world where truth is a matter of opinion, and everyone has their own valid evidence for what they believe, how do we even begin to come together on this problem? Admittedly for myself, the jury is still out on that. I think teaching people to be more scientific, philosophical, and dialectical is a start. But that sort of engagement is easier said than done, especially with education taking such a hit in this country. Utilizing the web to proliferate such ideas will be necessary to reach as many people in as many different ways as possible. In the 21st century, the internet will be the battleground between ideas and entire modes of thinking. If there is one thing I know for certain, it’s that the next few years are going to be very interesting and informative.