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ethics politics Random Thoughts Uncategorized

The Roots of Conspiracy Theory Rage

Checking my spam folder today, I saw an email from a conservative watchdog group. The email opened like this:

Dear Fellow Conservative,

Do you ever just wonder: what on earth is going on with the liberals in the Democrat party? 

Do they just have no clue what they’re doing to America? Or are they are so spiteful of the American way of life that they are actively working to destroy it?

Note the bold font on the last sentence, meant to draw the reader’s eye and suggest the author’s own beliefs. The writer of the email wants you to believe that the reason your political opponents are so wrong isn’t that they’re mistaken, it’s that they’re evil. In just a few words, the issue has shifted from the wrongness of liberalism’s ideas to the wicked, hostile intentions of its adherents.

But why? What evidence is there to suggest that liberals are “spiteful” of people like me? Well, evidence is largely beside the point; the email is meant to confirm suspiciousness in me that’s already there long before it arrives. And we have to concede this to the sender: This is indeed how so much of our political discourse in America goes right now. The space between “wrong” and “evil” has shrunk so badly that it’s almost obligatory now to preface criticism of someone with, “I don’t think they’re a bad person.” In a culture where people’s first assumption was that disagreements happen because of competing ideas, not  because minions want to ruin everything, no such preface would be necessary. It’s necessary in our culture because “This person is wrong about issue X” is almost always interpreted as a commentary on their character. If someone gets issue X wrong, it’s because they know they’re wrong and just want to hurt others.

This is, I think, a very important element in conspiracy theory thinking. Once you’re sold on the idea that honest wrongness is impossible, everything your opponents say becomes, in your eyes, evidence of their treason. Consider the usual progression of straw-man fallacies. Person A says to person B, “I think your real goal is to do Y to America.” Person B replies, “No, that’s not my goal at all,” to which person A says, “Well of course you’d deny it if it really was!” Bias confirmation kicks in, and there’s almost no way to convince person A otherwise, because everything they see is either what they predicted or evidence that person B is hiding something. That’s conspiracy theory thinking. And there’s no clean way off that psychological merry-go-round.

Categories
culture politics pop culture

Social Media Isn’t News

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

Actor Bradley Cooper was just another celebrity face in the crowd at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, but many Republicans on social media took vocal exception to the “American Sniper” star’s attendance.

Shortly after Cooper was caught on camera sitting in the audience next to model girlfriend Irina Shayk, conservative Twitter and Facebook users began to flood the platforms with calls for his boycott.

“I have a list of celebrities that support Socialism I refuse to spend another $ on,” said one Twitter user. “Add this one. Boycott them all.”

“Bradley Cooper at DNC?!” exclaimed another. “Guess I’ve seen my last Bradley Cooper movie.”

The apparent reason for the ire directed at Cooper stems from his portrayal of decorated U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in the 2014 Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper.”

This is not news. It’s something that a handful of random people on the internet said.

I follow many conservatives on social media. I haven’t seen one of them complain about Bradley Cooper’s attending the DNC. I had no idea Cooper attended until this story. I actually had no idea that anyone assumed he was a Republican until this story. So what? A few random people online are unable to differentiate celebrities from the roles that they play. If journalists want to cover this, fine, but that doesn’t make it news.

Perhaps the entire point of articles like this one is to have evidence to say that group X is ridiculous and bad and you probably shouldn’t support them. Conservative websites do these exact kinds of stories too. “You won’t BELIEVE what Libs are DEMANDING now!” Click the link, and you’ll read tweets or see screenshots from 4 or 5 people you’ve never heard of, who have probably fewer than 1,000 followers combined.

It’s human nature to want to hear more examples, no matter how ridiculous, of why you’re right and They are wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold journalism accountable a bit. It’s positively ridiculous to turn the stray tweets or Facebook posts of a few people into a national political story. It’s also more than a bit dishonest–if a reader who doesn’t have any social media reads daily pieces like this that supposedly document what “Republicans (or Democrats) on social media” are saying, then their instinctive reaction will be, “Well I don’t want any part of that.” When it turns out, 99% of other people don’t either.

Social media isn’t news.