My Facebook window is open even while I write this. It’s the sort of behaviour that becomes entrenched after years upon years of telling yourself that you’re studying while subconsciously doing everything in your power to avoid the task at hand. What strikes me on my feed today, however, is how an update from the indubitably credible Queensland Police Service is displayed only a few lines above a post from someone else sharing an article about a 9/11 conspiracy theory. You know, the one where the United States government executed an attack on the World Trade Centre, killing two-thousand citizens, so that they could occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, so that they could secure their oil supply, so that they could benefit the sorts of people who work in buildings like the World Trade Centre.
Theories like this are nonsense. There is no way that an event this large could have been planned and executed with the truth concealed for a decade thereafter. Yet there it is, elevated to the same level as a serious post from the Police about a crash on the Gateway Motorway. Evidently, while social networks have been enormously useful as tools of interpersonal communication, they have also made it easier to circulate opinions of little merit to an enormous audience.
It is not just a tiny pocket of individuals who have come to believe the 9/11 conspiracy theories. One survey in 2006 even found that up to one third of Americans think that 9/11 was an inside job. Surveys from various other pollsters have drawn similar results. ‘Truthers’, as they call themselves, number significantly in the United States and around the world. This proliferation of conspiracy theories can be put down, in part, to the velocity of information in the social realm of the internet.
For example, the century-old Anti-Defamation League, which since 9/11 has dedicated considerable time to refuting the idea that Jews were involved in the plot, has stressed the link between social networking and the rapid diffusion of conspiracy theories. The ADL points to the numerous Facebook pages dedicated to ‘uncovering the truth’ about 9/11. It also highlights the thousands of ‘truther’ YouTube videos, each viewed by tens of thousands around the world, as an important mechanism for disseminating such ludicrous theories.
The mainstream media certainly hasn’t been actively spreading these views. In fact, those who subscribe to the ‘Jews are behind 9/11’ version of the conspiracy often claim that the media is controlled by Jewish elites, and therefore propagates nothing but untruth.
Interestingly, an academic study from 2007 found that an individual’s belief in a 9/11 conspiracy theory is often associated with low general levels of media involvement. Social media, then, is what functions as the vehicle for dissemination of these views. It allows fanatic messages to circumvent the conventional media and reach an otherwise uninformed audience.
Noam Chomsky, for one, has commented on this dynamic, writing that “one person can come up with theory on a blog, and it has minimal credibility, but then five other people see it, and pretty soon you get exponential growth and have a huge industry reinforcing itself.”
Although, as already mentioned, the traditional media haven’t been active in spreading these ideas, their silence on them may have a passive role in allowing them to grow. Because the rational view (ie. believing the official explanation for the attacks) is treated as established fact in the mainstream, it is not discussed very much at all.
To the conspiracy theorist, this can come across as ignorance rather than rationality. It also prevents the truther, in their momentary attention to the conventional media, from hearing the rational side of the argument at all. With easy access to misinformation on social media and very little in terms of a counter-argument coming from the primary media, conspiracy theories have a climate to flourish.
And 9/11 conspiracies aren’t the only bad ideas which have regrettably also become big ideas via social media.
There is another large school of un-thought in the US which, contrary to all scientific evidence, believes that Autism is caused by vaccines. This can have severe consequences for those who hold such a belief. If a parent refuses to vaccinate their child based on fundamentally unsound warnings on the internet, the life of the child is being jeopardised.
The internet rumour-mill has also brought about the ‘birther’ movement which somehow thinks that President Obama was born not in the US but in Kenya, thus disqualifying him from holding office. Even after the President revealed his full birth certificate in April 2011 the cynics have continued to blight the social media landscape. Just last week, Donald Trump took to YouTube demanding that Obama release more items of proof including his passport and college applications. Social media thus also provides an avenue for people to continue pushing an idea long after it has been discredited in the broader discussion.
I don’t wish for any voices to be silenced. People should be allowed to say and think what they want within the boundaries of the law. But if we are talking about the discontents of social media, it’s important to mention the quality of public debate itself. Because if we are going to be projecting our thoughts online and through digital networks, we have to be OK with the fact that we will hear just as many dumb ideas as great ones, and amplified to equal volume.