I was surprised to see the New Statesman pay attention to one of the Internet's most famous conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones, the other day. Amelia Tait, a tech writer for the magazine, began an article on conspiracy theories with reference to Jones's well-known rant on "turning the friggin' frogs gay."
I often wonder how Jones maintains a career. Only the other day, shortly after Milo Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart following his scandalous comments about pederasty, I was watching a video released by Jones in which he claims that Edward Heath, the late British Prime Minister and Conservative MP, would abduct young British girls and kill them in his office. "According to our British sources, they would lay out plastic on the floor; a young girl would be walked in and a man with a double-edged dagger would slit the girl's throat. She would fall to the ground, bleeding to death, and the Prime Minister would then, basically, pleasure himself." Jimmy Savile, Jones claims, played a large role in kidnapping these unfortunate young women.
With claims as ludicrous as these, I don't understand how anyone can take Jones seriously. Plenty of people wonder whether Jones is a reasonable man who has found a bizarre way of earning a living in pretending to be a delusional conspiracy theorist and vaudeville-like entertainer - could anyone really be sincere in believing the kinds of things that Jones does? Alternatively, Jones is a mentally unhinged individual who has fallen foul of greedy media producers who see the rants of a madman as a lucrative opportunity for business.
But what should be more worrying is that plenty of Jones's fans and fellow readers of Infowars.com do believe these claims. They believe, sincerely, that the government is working on all manner of schemes to dupe the American people; they are confident in their belief that the government is controlled by secretive, totalitarian groups such as the Bilderberg elite, George Soros and his cronies or something like the Illuminati.
Conspiracy theories, as Tait writes, enjoy wide circulation because of the Internet. Multiple fora and webpages exist for questioning Barack Obama's birth certificate or Hillary Clinton's health (Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, considers the latter case here). Amelia Tait is not the first writer to address the extreme claims of the fringes of American politics with reference to psychological conditions such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Several other writers have explored the influence of unseen psychological factors for other magazines, newspapers and academic journals, especially in the wake of the Brexit and Trump votes and the 'fake news' epidemic. The Guardian considers the influence of incorrect sources widely shared on social media on how young Americans voted; before her article mentioning Alex Jones, Tait refers to psychological concepts in an earlier article exploring misogynistic Reddit streams and some male users who were once their fervent fans.
Journalists are also mindful of the consequences of the tidal wave of misinformation and deceit. Also for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny addresses fake news and how its peddlers manufacture nonsense for profit's sake; the Observer also notes how easy it is to find websites dedicated to denying the existence of the Holocaust. David Tollerton, a lecturer, has reflected (and written about it for the Guardian) on the apparent futility of teaching his students to argue properly when emotional slogans and prejudice will win elections and referenda ("Should footnotes and bibliographies be dismissed as elitist pedantry? Perhaps we should be training our students in the art of constructing compelling internet memes founded on fantasies? Or forceful slogans that combine emotive power with a strategic absence of content?").
There is an strain of thought that most commentators seem to think is unpalatable to express. People simply don't want to put the case forward. I've been considering it for a while and, especially since reading Tait's article on conspiracy theories, I feel that someone has to present the argument, even if it is a bad one.
We cannot attribute so many bad ideas and poor thinking to the influence of psychological factors beyond our control. Without denying the power of confirmation biases and logical fallacies, as well as how social conditioning makes some of our decisions partisan without us realising, can we not accept that not every is either educated or intelligent enough to make a coherent argument?
This is probably the most radical I've been in my blog for a long time, but I think that this is something that no one dares write but many have thought about. Take Alex Jones's mad anecdote about Edward Heath. It's all very well to refer to psychologists and their awareness of how people can form conspiracy theories to simplify a complicated body of information, cope with social isolation or tie many fringe ideas together to form a pattern, but should our main worry be that there are scores of people around the world who, when told that a former British Prime Minister would slit the throats of kidnapped girls, do not think twice?
Just as depressing as the decline of rational, well-written, coherent argument in favour of emotional outbursts and vulgar pathos is the fact that the latter kind of rhetoric actually works. Fear of the totalitarian state, fear of an invasion of immigrants, fear of the death of native culture, fear of the Islamisation of Europe and the establishment of Eurasia, fear of moral nihilism, fear of fascism and so on. The high chance that your pandering to prejudice and fact-free argument can win plenty of support: that's what should be scary to people like Dr. Tollerton.
There. I said it. There are people whose arguments are divorced from reason, facts and reality. I'm not trying to make a partisan attack against anyone of a particular political perspective, as many commentators like to do. It doesn't matter which side of the political debate you're on - there are innumerable people whose arguments depend on anything but fact. They might not get much television coverage, but the conspiracy theorists, the sceptics and the tin-foil-hat loonies exist in their droves and are free to expand their half-baked accounts of the world into giant webs of mistakes, misinformation and lies.
How do you take on lies and misleading narratives? Do you forge a narrative of your own? According to George Mason, yes. "If the liberal media has any principle left it is not the comment pages but the front page headlines that should say: “President exposed as lying fantasist,"" he concludes. I disagree - for the left-leaning media to engage in the same behaviour as the dogmatic bloggers and illogical YouTubers who are, regrettably, making capital out of ignorance, would be to commit the same crimes with which we think they are getting away. The press must remain professional and aligned to nothing but truth and scrutiny.
Am I going as far as Professor Richard Dawkins, who isn't afraid to admit his support of elitism, arguing that the British people should not have been handed the responsibility of deciding whether Britain leaves the EU? No, not quite. Rather, I'm concerned that we are not standing up for standards of academic endeavour, reasoned argument and sophisticated, civil interaction. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, of course, but I wouldn't offer a platform to someone whose ideas are threadbare and illogical. We should be having conversations for our benefit, education and progress, not for the pollution of our minds. We live in a time when the President of the United States makes unfounded allegations and attacks left, right and centre; even worse are his advisers who defend his ill-informed and peculiar witterings with reference to 'alternative facts', events that did not happen and reports that were never written. We need to make the case for proper standards and good arguments.