There have been a number of Facebook posts ‘quoting’ Pope Francis. He has said that it is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person; that one should not take Hell literally; that the Biblical account of Adam and Eve is a fable, and that we need more saints who drink Coca-Cola. He has endorsed Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. All of these quotes are fake but they have gone viral. How could such obviously untrue statements been so quickly and easily believed?
Even lapsed Catholics know the Church well enough to know that the Pope could never have so summarily dismissed doctrinal issues that have been the bedrock of Catholicism for centuries; nor, despite his expressed sentiments about the poor, the sanctity of all life, and the nature of the individual soul, could he ever have endorsed a political candidate because of their stances on abortion, the environment, or individual liberties.
There are posts about unholy and impossible political alliances, ‘new’ data linking disease to unthinkable causes; improbable cures for intractable disease; and the wildest, most implausible statements by world leaders; doomsday scenarios about rogue asteroids headed for Earth and viruses worse than Ebola mutating in Africa.
There are posts which, despite decades of scientific evidence continue to link autism with vaccines, the debilitating cause of fluoridation on brain function, and the addling effect of small motors (hair dryers, electric toothbrushes) on cognition.
Conspiracy theorists have added additional layers to these theories. According to one, the effects of fluoridation on brain function were discovered by the Nazis who where thwarted in their attempts to sabotage Allied reservoirs; but whose findings were used successfully by the Soviets to lessen Americans’ resolve.
Other popular conspiracy theories have proposed that the United States moon landings were all staged in Hollywood; that both 9/11 and Pearl Harbor were engineered by Bush and Roosevelt for political reasons; that AIDS is a man-made disease; that a UFO landed in Roswell, NM; and that humanoid reptilians are taking control of the world.
There has been considerable research done on conspiracy theories, and the findings, although focused on major hoaxes, suggest the psycho-social and cultural reasons why untruths are so common and favored on social media.
In an article on the origin of conspiracy theories in The Psychologist (July 2010) Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles have detailed the sociological and psychological determinants of conspiracy theories. Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors. How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?
A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.However, simply being powerless – most people are unable to influence events or decisions on anything but an individual or family basis – is not enough:
To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory helps explain those ambiguities and provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty. Or that the human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.The authors add one more important element – that people react on the basis of ‘dispositional’ factors – i.e. internal factors that have nothing to do with objective reality:
Conspiracy theorists are more likely to blame Hofstadter’s ‘preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network’ even when adequate situational explanations are available. This may be especially true when people are outraged or distressed and seek to justify their emotional state by claiming intentionality of actions even in the absence of evidence.In very simple terms, many people are already disposed, for various reasons, to mistrust ‘the facts’ and have already internalized a belief that something is or is not true. Those people who believe that 9/11 was an insidious plot by Bush, the CIA, or the Israelis are unlikely to change their belief on the basis of ‘situational factors’ – historical antecedents and the forensic evidence.
The authors suggest that one conspiracy often feeds others:
A ‘monological belief system’ allows conspiracy theorists to easily assimilate explanations for new phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to understand or would threaten their existing beliefs. Those, for example, who more strongly endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to believe in other, seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories.
This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories – once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective ‘evidence’, and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others.For those Facebook users who simply temporarily suspend logic and rationality – i.e., reasonable people most of the time and choose to believe impossibly fictitious stories only on occasion – the reasons are far simpler. Information which confirms, consolidates, or reaffirms political or social notions – regardless of the obvious outlandishness of its claims – is believed without question and incorporated into a pre-established point of view.
Lapsed Catholics who have always harbored guilt for having left the Church, are encouraged by Pope Francis’ statements on inclusivity and the value of all religions. Progressives who believe that the nation’s ills are caused by the depredations of Wall Street and the One Percent are likely to quickly accept allegations of misdoing by corporate executives because of their a priori conclusion that capitalism is corrupt. Environmentalists are likely to take with little or no skepticism intimations of climate change Armageddon – the sudden disappearance of bees, the disrupted patterns of sea otters and the Namibian desert spider. Believers in alternative medicine will be quick to accept stories which suggest that disease is not only not cured by modern medicine but exacerbated or even caused by it.
Even the most rational and naturally skeptical readers tend to use information to strengthen or reinforce existing conclusions. Some study data on the socio-economic and racial distribution of crime; but do so selectively. There is an obvious causal relationship between the dysfunctionality of inner cities and murder rates, so it is necessary only to confirm the extent of it – not to examine or even look for the intervening variables in the equation.
Climate change skeptics who consider themselves rational and scientifically-inclined, tend to base their research on a philosophical rejection of ‘settled science’. They might be persuaded that global warming is indeed happening, but not with such absolute certainty as that expressed by environmental advocates. They tend, therefore, to read more articles by climate change deniers than those who preach orthodoxy. Their intent – logical, dispassionate analysis – may be laudable, but their true disbelief is transparent.
In other words, we all fall for some kind of ‘untruth’. None of us are purely logical, rational beings and cannot escape the insistent bias of personal vindication. Eye-witness accounts are now being discounted because of recent studies which have shown that they are unreliable. We see what we want to see.
Self-image is an important factor in believing untruths. Once we have subscribed to a cause – environmentalism, anti-capitalism, alternative medicine, nationalism, or race-gender-ethnicity equality – we tend to use any and all information to support it. In other words, the ends justify the means.
Religious fundamentalism is another reason why the firewall between truth and fiction has become so diaphanous. For those who take the Bible as the absolute, unedited Word of God with no allegory, no metaphor, nor allusion, the abandonment of reason in non-religious spheres becomes easy.
Finally everything in American culture has been tending towards this disassembly of reason and rationality for decades. Pundits, experts, critics, and professional observers are supernumerary in an age of big data. There is no longer any received wisdom but collective wisdom. The judgment of tens of millions of ‘bettors’ always produces more relevant conclusions than any one or group of intellectuals. Both considered and frivolous bets are all placed in the pot, mixed and turned, sorted and analyzed. Hearts and minds are mixed, and such uncategorized results always trump expert opinion.
Virtual reality and the coming interface between mind/brain and computer will moot any discussions of the ‘real’, the ‘actual’, and the ‘proven’. A world controlled by individual thought, feeling, emotion, and perception; one mediated electronically and in which all mind/brains can be linked to all available current and historical information, will be a revolutionary world.
America will be at the vanguard of this cybernetic revolution because we are fundamentally disposed to image, unreality, and fantasy. We have no European historical or cultural baggage to weigh us down. Our culture is one of procedure and process (democracy and liberal economics) rather than the more substantive heritage of literary, intellectual, and artistic traditions. We have no medieval cathedrals, and even if we did, they would be transferable. In a country of individual enterprise, expansionism, and boundless optimism, there is nothing to hold us back in our pursuit of the untethered.
The recent statements by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook expressing his concern over fake sites and posts on his product while well-meaning are hopeless at best and dangerous at worst. Not only will they not curb Americans’ appetites for fiction, made-up news. and tall tales; they will be one more step towards invasive actions to curb free speech.
The best approach is to accept our ready dismissal of fact when it serves the purpose. We are congenital suspenders of disbelief. We all believe some kind of fabrication or at the very least concoct our own version of the truth based on selective choice and memory. And fabrication is infectious. Once we go down the road of “I read it somewhere”, there is no stopping us.