23 July 2020

The internet of delusion -- a (temporary) paradox

By increasing access to information and changing the way people communicate, the internet is obviously having an impact on beliefs and ideas.  One oddity which has occurred to me is that the internet is, paradoxically, strengthening irrational belief systems which have very few adherents, while weakening those which have many.

Consider a person holding a relatively rare irrational belief -- flat-Earthism, for example.  Before the internet, contact with others sharing the same belief would have been limited and difficult.  There were probably small-press publications and occasional conventions of the like-minded (expensive and inconvenient to attend), but by and large, the pre-internet flat-Earther's social interaction was almost entirely with people who didn't share his delusion.  Only somebody totally unswayed by knowing his views were considered absurd by everyone he knew would continue to adhere to those views.  They certainly got almost no external reinforcement.

Today that same person can effortlessly find a whole online community of people who believe exactly as he does.  There is plenty of external reinforcement.  Worse yet, someone who isn't a convinced flat-Earther but is vaguely curious about it may well encounter the same online communities and come to believe that the concept has far more adherents and is far better supported by evidence than it actually is (most people believe their own social and political views are more widely held than they actually are, because it's so easy to find what appears to be a large number of like-minded people online).  The internet makes it easier to recruit new believers as well as reinforce existing ones.

This would work the same way for other crackpot ideas like Bigfoot, Kennedy-assassination conspiratardia, 9-11 "truthism", the Moon landings being faked, etc. -- as well as more dangerous ones like neo-Naziism and anti-vax.  Thirty years ago, in most of the country, the guy who admired Hitler and believed in vast evil Jewish conspiracies was a weirdo who kept quiet about it if he knew what was good for him.  Now he views himself as part of an online community who are "in the know" about the "suppressed truth", in contrast to the oblivious "mundanes" and "sheeple" (the use of the word "sheeple" is an almost infallible sign that the person talking is an adherent of some sort of crackpot cult).  And he's convinced there are a lot more like him than there really are.  In the case of some weird belief systems, like QAnon, it's hard to imagine them existing at all without the internet.

The case of irrational belief systems with very large numbers of adherents is in some ways the opposite.  Belief systems such as Islam and Christianity, for example, dominate huge blocs of population, so that traditionally adherents within those blocs had all their social interaction with other people who expressed the same beliefs (whether real or just feigned to avoid social ostracism), or at the very least respected them and avoided challenging them.  External reinforcement was the main prop supporting the individual's continued adherence, and there was hardly ever any exposure to opposing ideas that might provoke questions, anyway.

Today, obviously, such people can also find large numbers of like-minded people online, but except for the most fervent, they don't particularly work to avoid encountering different ideas -- because they've never previously had to.  Almost any contrasting belief system ultimately poses a challenge to the existing one -- as I've discussed before, for many religious people, the road to atheism starts not with exposure to atheist ideas, but with exposure to some religion other than their own.  It's no coincidence that the last twenty years has seen such a dramatic rise in questioning and rejection of religion, not just in the US but in Latin America and even the Middle East.  It matches the rise of mass access to the internet.

I think it's a good trade-off.  The widespread crackpot ideas are much more dangerous than the minor ones, if only because they're more widespread.  And as the minor ones become more of a problem, people are becoming more organized to speak out against them and expose the fallacies.  Avoiding such challenges online is possible, but it takes work, and only the most fervent will do it.  The vast penumbra of more casual followers which religions have, and are now losing due to the internet, will most likely never get a chance to build up around neo-Naziism and suchlike in the first place.

In the long run, I think, sanity will prevail in both cases.  The ultimate defense of foolish and evil beliefs and ideologies has always been censorship -- blasphemy laws and the like.  Authoritarians and bullies dread having challenges to their dogmas freely expressed, and for good reason.  The internet has made it far easier for people to circumvent censorship, and to read and see that which someone else believes they should not.  A free mind may not always arrive at the truth, but it has a much better chance than a captive one does.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Oh, you are so right.
I think the anti-vaxxers and the New Neo-Nazis are the worst. Flat Earthers? Yeah, stupid and all but less influential. They have killed only themselves, when attempting to prove the earth is flat. But those others can kill other people.
I remember just a few years ago when we laughed at the crackpots. Now they have InfoWars and Reddit to thrive.
It's a shitshow.


23 July, 2020 03:17  
Blogger Ebon Krieg said...

I agree that most of the people posting bullshit are idiots. That is the nature of humans in herds. What we fail at is that conspiracy exists and our perception of it is beholden to the mob. Therefore conspiracy ( more than one person acting) becomes a word that means the opposite of what it was intended too.
We have all become part of the groupings we enjoy as social beings, We must perceive these social groupings with a grain of salt. I gave up church many decades ago even though I loved the people in this grouping.
It was a matter of selfish indulgence. I no longer believed what they believed and it was in my nature to leave rather than argue any differences.
I do miss all those people.

23 July, 2020 11:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: There's another crackpot belief system similar to anti-vax but far more dangerous. Maybe I'll post about it someday.

Ebon: I think conspiratardia is a form of pareidolia -- the tendency to perceive patterns that aren't actually there. Our brains don't like the fact that a lot of the world around us is random, and try to find underlying patterns in it. Imagining hidden conspiracies is a prime example.

24 July, 2020 09:30  
Anonymous NickM said...

You've outdone yourself. An excellent post about a very serious issue. I sincerely hope (I actually expect) your central thesis that this internet insanity is a temporary thing. Ideas along similar lines had kinda occurred to me but you put them better than I ever could have.

"Ebon: I think conspiratardia is a form of pareidolia -- the tendency to perceive patterns that aren't actually there. Our brains don't like the fact that a lot of the world around us is random, and try to find underlying patterns in it. Imagining hidden conspiracies is a prime example."

I think you have a wider point here. Are you aware of th Titius-Bode Law? It is something that is sometimes true (and sometimes not) for no real physical reason we know of. Of course it would help if we had anything like the detail we have on the Sol system about other star systems.

But... We naturally search for patterns in, well, everything. Sometimes these lead to profound insights into how the Universe works and sometimes they don't. Which is why one of my fave science quote is from Arthur Eddington,

“Never trust an experimental result until it has been confirmed by theory”

What did he mean by that? I leave that as an exercise for the reader but whilst Eddington was right about a lot (the first physicist in the Anglosphere to really grok GR) and a great popular science writer but he was also wrong about his contemporary Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and his limit. Eddington thought stellar collapse beyond white dwarf density was absurd.

Having said that they remainded very good friends.

25 July, 2020 05:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" Thirty years ago, in most of the country, the guy who admired Hitler and believed in vast evil Jewish conspiracies was a weirdo who kept quiet about it if he knew what was good for him."

Thirty years ago, David Duke was in the Louisiana legislature and received the majority of the white vote in his U.S. Senate campaign.

25 July, 2020 10:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: Thanks! The internet is still something of a novelty and it takes time for the forces of sanity to work out how best to use it. Bullshit always spreads faster at first, since it isn't bound by any rules.

My impression of the Titius-Bode law was that it had been more or less abandoned after the discovery of Neptune (never mind the vile heresy which claims Pluto is not a planet). It doesn't seem to hold very well for the ratio of the orbits of Venus, Earth, and Mars, either. What I know about exoplanet systems doesn't support it. The fact that it seems to hold for some of our outer planets is probably just chance.

25 July, 2020 10:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: Well, I did say "in most of the country".

25 July, 2020 10:44  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

you can't cure stupid..and you sure as shit can't argue with them..don't even try.

26 July, 2020 11:53  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I gave up arguing with them a long time ago.

28 July, 2020 01:35  

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