I have an op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail, “Why do people believe the Earth is flat?” wherein I connect the rise of conspiratorial thinking to the rise in actual conspiracies, in which increasingly concentrated industries are able to come up with collective lobbying positions that result in everything from crashing 737s to toxic baby-bottle liners to the opioid epidemic.
In a world where official processes are understood to be corruptible and thus increasingly unreliable, we don’t just have a difference in what we believe to be true, but in how we believe we know whether something is true or not. Without an official, neutral, legitimate procedure for rooting out truth — the rule of law — we’re left just trusting experts who “sound right to us.”
Big Tech has a role to play here, but it’s not in automated brainwashing through machine learning: rather, it’s in the ability for conspiracy peddlers to find people who are ripe for their version of the truth, and in the ability of converts to find one another and create communities that make them resilient against social pressure to abandon their conspiracies.
Fighting conspiracies, then, is ultimately about fighting the corruption that makes them plausible — not merely correcting the beliefs of people who have come under their sway.
They say that ad-driven companies such as Google and Facebook threw so much R&D at using data-mining to persuade people to buy refrigerators, subprime loans and fidget-spinners that they accidentally figured out how to rob us of our free will. These systems put our online history through a battery of psychological tests, automatically pick an approach that will convince us, then bombard us with an increasingly extreme, increasingly tailored series of pitches until we’re convinced that creeping sharia and George Soros are coming for our children.
This belief is rooted in a deep and completely justified mistrust of the Big Tech companies, which have proven themselves liars time and again on matters of taxation, labour policy, complicity in state surveillance and oppression, and privacy practices.
But this well-founded skepticism is switched off when it comes to evaluating Big Tech’s self-serving claims about the efficacy of its products. Exhibit A for the Mind-Control Ray theory of conspiratorial thinking is the companies’ own sales literature, wherein they boast to potential customers about the devastating impact of their products, which, they say, are every bit as terrific as the critics fear they are.
Why do people believe the Earth is flat? [Cory Doctorow/The Globe and Mail]