If you’ve been on the Internet for more than 10 minutes total in your entire life, this has probably happened to you: You see a “news” story, or a blog post or a tweet or a meme or whatever, that strikes you as completely ridiculous. You publicly reply to it with what you believe to be an appropriate level of righteous indignation. You see that a lot of other people have done the same. This reinforces your belief that you’re right, and that the person(s) you’re speaking out against must be a serious threat. After all, why would so many people get upset about something if it wasn’t real?
And then, of course, you find out that it wasn’t real. It was the work of a handful of online trolls, trying to rile you up and succeeding thoroughly.
Once you’re armed with that knowledge, you either get better at sniffing out such cynical, manipulative provocation or… you don’t.
The shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day inspired an energetic group of young activists to weigh in on the national debate on guns, safety, and personal freedoms. But as they found their voice, conspiracy theories purporting that they were “crisis actors”—frauds pretending to be students—spiraled across social media and into the mainstream…
And why did it blow up the way it did? Was it because a lot of people actually believe the “crisis actors” nonsense? Does it really confirm the biases of gun-control activists and other lefties? Not necessarily:
People outraged by the conspiracy helped to promote it—in some cases far more than the supporters of the story…
This unintended amplification created by outrage-sharing may have helped put the conspiracy in front of more unsuspecting people.
Read the whole thing. It takes you through the whole process of making complete garbage like this go viral. In sum: Just because something is trending on Twitter, that doesn’t mean it’s important. That doesn’t mean it even exists.
We see it time and again. A few trolls and weirdos throw out some nutty conspiracy theory, a massive number of people scream about it to assure themselves that they’d never say such an awful thing, and then they all congratulate themselves for being “woke.”
For whatever reason, this tends to happen a lot with upcoming movie releases starring black actors. There was the “racist backlash” against Idris Elba playing a Norse god in the Thor movies. There was the “racist backlash” against John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There was the “racist backlash” against Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch in Fantastic Four. More recently, there was the “racist backlash” against Black Panther. In all of those cases, if you took the time to look into it further than a few clickbait headlines, it all started with a few little jerks who tried to get a reaction and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
“Well, those guys I hate are all racists anyway,” you might reassure yourself. “Plus, if they’re dumb enough to believe in the Second Amendment, they’re probably dumb enough to believe in ‘crisis actors.'” And then you wonder why there’s a #fakenews problem.
Obviously, survivors of school shootings aren’t “crisis actors.” The thing is, almost nobody actually believes they are. It might make you feel better to assure yourself that a few loony conspiracy theorists, and the cynical trolls who egg them on, represent all [right-wingers/conservatives/Trump voters/other people you don’t like]. It might confirm your biases. You might comb through the comments of this very blog post for people spreading this “crisis actors” nonsense to get a reaction, as if that disproves my point rather than reinforcing it.
Just because something makes you angry doesn’t mean it’s real. Just because you want to believe that people you loathe are proponents of whichever conspiracy theory has outraged you in the last hour, that doesn’t mean they really are.
(The same thing goes for left-wing conspiracies, of course. The main difference is that those tend to be reported as news. If it’s too good to check, why bother? I’ve given up clicking on any story with “Russia” or “Putin” in the headline. Maybe some of it is actual news, but it’s [current year] and I’m tired of taking the bait.)
I’m as susceptible to cognitive bias as anybody, but every day I fight to resist it. How about we all give it a try, huh? Just for a nice change of pace.