One of the biggest issues emerging out of the digital age is the onslaught of misinformation and conspiracy theories that flood the internet, spreading like wildfire through populations. It seems we are being pushed into a post-truth society, where objective reality has lost some of its power in influencing political and societal decisions. One of the biggest hopes for humanity was our rather recent revolution in processing and accessing information and knowledge on the internet, it has put forth the world at most everyone’s fingertips. It warrants comparison to the invention of the printing press and the revolution it sparked in giving power to the people. At the time, it had completely undermined the gatekeeper of knowledge that was the Catholic church and offered a much-needed spark to the coming scientific revolution.
We seem to be taking steps backward, though. As previous generations’ policies and legacy still hold progressive movements back, whether from ignorance or sheer bias to maintaining a status quo, going so far as to interrupt or attempt to squash any ideas of change that come up. Status quo bias was hypothesized by Samuelson & Zeckhauser (1988), to act as a psychological anchor to change. Where the stronger the commitment to the status quo, the stronger the anchoring effect (p.41).
We are often (false) pattern-detecting, cause-inferring, purpose-seeking, and storytelling animals (Atran & Henrich, 2010). This can be seen through the popularity of our entertainment as well as our irrational beliefs such as conspiracy theories and religion. Reiterating this point, Gilovich, Griffin, & Kahneman (2002), people often ignore actually thinking in a probabilistic manner and rely instead on judgmental heuristics, which are often prone to error.
Heuristics are essentially mental shortcuts and are not always necessarily rational or accurate. Now, imagine if you will, factors such as culture and the influence they have on our heuristics. This is a strong reason why irrational beliefs persist, as they are passed on through generations. Old, and in some cases, ancient, errors in judgment stay relevant despite the detriment they may cause. Again, as mentioned previously, it is a measurement of how much one has placed into their subjective reality or self-image. In the case of cultural transmission, the imitation of others can expose the mind to maladaptive ideas and can be further reinforced through status-quo bias.
The speed at which the information travels is fast and can outpace our need to properly digest it. The speed can cause diffusion in the information. Allport & Postman (1947), The power of rumor can be gauged by two factors: importance and ambiguity. Where the amount of rumor in circulation will vary with the importance of the subject to the individuals concerned times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at issue (p.34). Importance and ambiguity are hallmarks of the current popular conspiracies.
One that has gained much infamy is the QAnon conspiracy theory. According to Wikipedia (n.d.)
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump, who is battling them, leading to a “day of reckoning” involving the mass arrest of journalists and politicians. No part of the theory is based on fact.
The importance of the rumor appears to have been bolstered by the arrest and suicide of Jeffery Epstein, who had many notable connections in Hollywood and Washington. To even further the conspiracies ” credibility” the news of his death had been posted to 4chan before it had been reported by any mainstream outlets. An odd circumstance, but one which Trump has utilized, playing into the ambiguity presented to him by not fully denouncing the theory and its proponents.
Of course, in the age of Coronavirus anxiety, anti-vax, flat earth, alien life, and 5g towers, the landscape is littered with irrational rhetoric and rumor. All of it furthered through memes, becoming like a game of telephone, where the information is continually diluted the more it is passed on. It creates obfuscation and opens the door for decontextualization, to sum it up, Allport & Postman (1947), an empty canvas is given to the people, which they then color with the pigments of their mental life (p. 146).
A possible mechanism of judgment with the conspiracies in question is the availability heuristic, which can wreak havoc in cognition, Tversky & Kahneman (1973) memory retrieval will often go to more extreme examples of events or individuals than more mundane instances, it affects judgment in the sense that the extremes will seem more common than they actually are, an overrepresentation in memory and judgment. Framing these instances as witch-hunts through various historical periods, Tajfel (1981) boils it down to a basic principle of not missing anyone who might fall into the negative or extreme category (p. 154). This is best illustrated by the list of names that had connections to Jeffery Epstein, where those around one extreme individual are assumed to be in the same category. It has also amplified the issue where it has branched into other movements, such as the current #saveourchildren.
The proliferation of this information seems to serve as another stepping stone into more right-wing politics or attempts to drag discourse into the same irrational cognition as those who would more easily succumb to what is essentially manipulative politics…
Next: Another pin in the board
Allport, G. Postman (1947) The Psychology of Rumour. New York: Henry Hotland Co
Atran, S., & Henrich, J. (2010). The evolution of religion: How cognitive by-products, adaptive learning heuristics, ritual displays, and group competition generate deep commitments to prosocial religions. Biological Theory, 5(1), 18-30
Gilovich, T., Griffin, D., & Kahneman, D. (Eds.). (2002). Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. Cambridge university press.
QAnon (2020, September 12th). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QAnon
Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1(1), 7–59. doi:10.1007/bf00055564
Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories: Studies in social psychology. Cup Archive.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232