The process of a rumor goes through stages for “optimization”, essentially boiling it down to something that can easily grab the attention of the reader and possibly subvert their more rational cognitions. Allport & Postman (1947), leveling is essentially a diffusion i.e., making the rumor contain fewer words or items, shortening it, and taking away elaboration. A rumor becomes shorter and shorter. Next is sharpening which involves choosing which parts of information are transmitted. And lastly is assimilation, where the information is distorted by subconscious motivations. The authors present evidence of this through the results of their study utilizing a picture of a chaotic battle where a red cross truck is clearly shown loaded with explosives, though test subjects often reported the truck as carrying medical supplies (p.75-102). The findings show how we can fall prone to assimilative errors in judgment, where our view going into a situation can shape how we perceive it. Kahneman, Slovic, Slovic, & Tversky (1982), also found that the more confidence we have in a prediction the more likely we are to be off the mark (p.66). Conspiracy theorists are utterly certain in their ideas that they rarely consider their judgments could be full of errors.
I had previously mentioned the current movement going around social media under the moniker #saveourchildren. At a glance, the intentions mean well, but when you look into it you will begin to see a pattern within the material. With well over 3 million posts about the topic on Facebook, much of it has the trappings of conspiracy theories. The phenomenon is in fact a conspiratorial spinoff of an actual humanitarian organization that used #savethechildren, though, the tag was hijacked by QAnon forcing the organization to distance themselves from the hashtag.
Boiled to its essence, an organization that has been working to protect children for over a century has had its hashtag co-opted by QAnon, who spreads false claims about sex trafficking and public figures.
When using the modifications a rumor goes through by Allport and Postman one can begin to piece together the framework of #saveourchildren. Leveling is how simple the message is and sharpening when the information shared is selectively chosen and shortened, very little in the way of statistics or actual experts comment on the issue. Instead, memes or anecdotal stories are often shared, they’re compact and to the point. The solutions offered almost all fall into the category of capital punishment, a hallmark of cultures of honor. Assimilation happens when it is picked up by others who further distort it with their own subconscious motivations or bias. In this case, it is largely emotional and cultural reactions, with aspects of sadism littered throughout. You will also notice an abundance of white faces and very little talk of the majority of the trafficking coming from developing nations, I am willing to bet you will not see many articles with the hashtag mentioning that the public’s textiles and garments are made through the exploitation of children which also heavily ties into child trafficking. The issue of poverty which is one of the largest factors driving trafficking is noticeably absent as well. ILO; UNICEF; UN.GIFT (2009) note that poverty mixed with other factors are the leading causes of trafficking (p. 23).
They put up an illusory boogeyman, in the form of a satanic cult in the highest echelons of power preying on their children. It might be easier, then having to look into the nature of culture, especially when the multimillion-dollar industry that is child beauty pageants, as well as recent evidence of the thousands of reported child abuse incidents by staff in ICE facilities exist. It might be too hard to admit for some, as mentioned by Allport (1955) differences within groups are always greater than differences between groups (p. 143). Though it may be a perilous argument, according to Allport, because ideas engulfed by overpowering emotion, are more likely to conform to the emotion than to objective evidence (p.22). Either way, the issue becomes volatile with these factors, and as evidence in the area suggests, that relying on mental shortcuts might not be the best solution to the problem. Not to mention the overall complexity of trafficking, especially where foundational socioeconomic variables are contributing to the issue.
When looking at the evidence, the real message appears to be #SaveOURchildren. In this case, it would be white and conservative or of the same tribe, unless, of course, it interferes with national agendas or interests. Nothing but knee-jerk reactionary politics masquerading as humanitarianism. It thus tries to narrow cognition to a two-valued judgment, while omitting any complicity in the issue, either through lack of knowledge, critical thinking or by playing partisan politics. Essentially creating a moral panic.
Next: Déjà vu
Allport, G. W. (1955). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Allport, G. Postman (1947) The Psychology of Rumour. New York: Henry Hotland Co.
ILO; UNICEF; UN.GIFT (2009). Training Manual to Fight Child Trafficking in Children for Labour, Sexual and Other Forms of Exploitation – Textbook 1: Understanding Child Trafficking (PDF). Retrieved September17, 2020.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, S. P., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.). (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge university press