One ancient and well-known social phenomenon greatly accelerated by the internet and social media is the spreading of false rumors, particularly politically motivated false rumors, and particularly relatively complex ones such as those that come in the form of conspiracy theories. Many cloak themselves in elaborate pseudo-arguments that can be very easily debunked, and many are passed along and eagerly consumed like a spreading contagion. The phrase “going viral” isn’t just a metaphor; these complex “memes” and narratives are cultural pathologies that sweep through the population in epidemic waves feeding off of one another and forming one, overarching pandemic of enormous destructive power.
The confluence of a set of evolutionarily produced psychological quirks and their strategic exploitation by opinion-makers (particularly right-wing opinion-makers) helps explain how easily pernicious falsehoods resonate and spread.
One such “cognitive glitch” is due to the natural, psychological attraction to anomalies, because we evolved to be attentive to anything out of place (since being adept at noticing things out of place was vital to survival on the African savanna). But that, coupled with a lack of awareness of what I call “the probability of the improbable,” creates a constant attribution of heightened significance to observations of things that have no real significance.
It’s highly improbable, for instance, that any given individual will win the lottery, but it’s highly probable (virtually certain) that SOME individual will. We mostly get that one, because we’ve institutionalized it on the basis of its probability structure. There are lots of similarly improbable events –like a bullet hitting a “lucky” coin in someone’s breast pocket, or someone being delayed by some chance occurrence and thus not getting on a flight that crashed– that occur in general on a regular basis, because in a world with millions of events constantly occurring, it’s highly probable that improbable events will occur at a certain frequency determined by the degree of their improbability.
In a world of instantaneous mass communications, any highly improbable event that occurs anywhere in the world is instantly brought to everyone’s attention, and draws people’s attention in proportion to both the degree of its improbability and its resonance with existing narratives.
If a religious icon appears to be crying, for instance, that is a miracle that confirms the religion. If a disproportionate number of planes and ships have disappeared in any concise geographic area (a probable improbability), that geographic area becomes imbued with a supernatural aura. If some of the vague and broadly interpretable predictions of an ancient mystic “come true,” that is proof of his power of prophesy.
More mundanely, this is part of the larger phenomenon of cherry-picking convenient evidence that supports a desired narrative, such as cobbling together a narrative that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US from any snippets of evidence that can possibly be used to support such a narrative. Our shared cognitive landscape is littered with such products of probable improbabilities or cherry-picked “evidence” and our tendency to imbue them with a special significance (or an evidentiary value) that they don’t really merit.
Another quirk is that we are attracted to the plausible, especially if it fits into some narrative or archetype that resonates with us (again, because primate brains evolving in the wild thrive by being able to create plausible scenarios on which to rely) . So, for instance, when I heard the (erroneous) rumor a few decades ago that Jerry Mathers, the child star of “Leave it to Beaver” in the 1950s, had been killed in Vietnam, I was already aware enough of this quirk to say to myself “it’s too plausible, fits too neatly into a clear and relevant narrative, to be assumed true; it’s exactly the kind of rumor that would be almost certain to exist regardless of its truth or falsehood.” The narrative of the iconic little boy of the 1950s dying in the iconic unpopular war of the 1960s is just too neat and cognitively attractive not to emerge and spread.
Similarly, those who want to discredit Obama are attracted to any narrative that discredits him, and those who want to believe in the mystical supernatural quality of their own religion will be attracted to narratives supported by “evidence” which support that conclusion.
When you combine these, you get the frequent phenomenon of people with ideological agendas cherry-picking (or manufacturing) probable improbabilities and weaving them into plausible narratives that serve their ideological agendas. This can be found across the political ideological spectrum, but it is by far most pronounced on the far-right, which is where reason and critical thought are in shortest supply.
But it’s not just a decentralized, organic process. We’re seeing a lot of the increasingly sophisticated exploitation of known and understood human cognitive foibles by the most greedy and ruthless among us. Whether they would articulate it in the same way I did or not, all of the right-wing opinion-makers understand the cognitive glitches I described above, and know how to exploit them to maximum effect.
And the convoluted irony of it all is a thing of horrible beauty: Those on the far-right, thoroughly manipulated and easiest to manipulate, call all those who disagree with them “sheepies,” and announce that they alone are the ones who “think for themselves,” “thinking for oneself,” in this case, meaning ignoring fact and rational analysis in favor of the preferred dogmatic ideology. Those who are thinking for them know how to exploit their cognitive weaknesses and their lack of commitment to critical thinking, so much so that they turn it into a narrative of independence from such manipulation!
What drives me to confront this phenomenon when I encounter it is my own inability to believe that this fortress of self-delusions in which these cultist ideologues ensconce themselves can’t be breached; to my mind, the walls are paper-thin, the foundations cracked and crumbling. I always feel as though all it should take is one small tap of reason in just the right place, and the whole thing just has to come toppling down. But the one impenetrable reinforcement that this fortress has, that, despite the paper-thin walls and crumbling foundations can’t be penetrated, is the decision to disregard fact and reason under any and all circumstances, and to defend the cultish dogma in any way necessary.
And that is why I think our greatest responsibility is to consider how to cultivate the habits of mind and interaction, of disciplined reason honed in rational debate in which the best informed and best reasoned arguments prevail, following the rules similar to those of scientific methodology and legal procedure, all channeled in service to our shared humanity. That is who and what we should be; that is who and what we can be.