search engines vs. conspiracy theorists?

January 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

If you’ve ever read anything by Evgeny Morozov, you know that his views of the web tend to be rather mixed. In his best known work, The Net Delusion, he argues against the idea that the web could liberate authoritarian regimes by giving its oppressed subjects information and a means to organize while chastising the heady notions held by techno-utopians about the future role of the web in our lives. And now, after taking web-based freedom fighters across the world to task for their exuberance, Morozov set his eye on an online phenomenon familiar to any skeptic, asking whether search engines should warn users that conspiracy sites and blogs are in their search results and offering a gentle alternative to stem the growth of the movements spawned by avid readers of sites like Prison Planet and Info Wars, and devoted listeners of Coast to Coast AM. But will the conspiracy theorists who’ll spend their nights dreaming of Illuminati sex slave dungeons or harassing their former friends who changed their minds about their favored conspiracies, really want to see any opposing viewpoints presented by a search engine? Wouldn’t they just declare it as a nefarious plot to stop them?

Let’s keep in mind that conspiracy theories attract those with a certain mindset, people looking for a blueprint of how the world works and hopefully one that will make them seem like agents of freedom fighting against a sinister cabal planning to enslave humanity. They’re trying to derive order from a tangled mess, to find rather simple answers to complex problems while labeling those they mistrust as the evil masterminds behind the conspiracy they’ve invented. So what will be their first reaction when a Popular Mechanics article debunking all the arguments of 9/11 Truthers comes up when they search for something about the 9/11 conspiracy theories to bolster their latest blog entry? Obviously the government is trying to stop them and Popular Mechanics is in on the whole thing, just like everyone else who pokes holes in their arguments is either a government shill or simply one of the naive sheeple who can’t see the truth. Why would anyone who is not in cahoots with the evil conspirators ask them to question if vaccines are an alien population control tool, or if evolution is really an insidious Zionist scam? Morozov readily acknowledges this mentality, especially in anti-vaxxers…

They are far too vested in upholding their contrarian theories. Some have consulting and speaking gigs to lose while others simply enjoy a sense of belonging to a community, no matter how kooky. Thus, attempts to influence communities that embrace pseudoscience or conspiracy theories by having independent experts or, worse, government workers join them, the much-debated antidote of “cognitive infiltration” proposed by Cass Sunstein, [...] won’t work. Besides, as the Vaccine study shows, blogs and forums associated with the anti-vaccination movement are aggressive censors, swiftly deleting any comments that tout the benefits of vaccination.

In other words, they’re not willing to listen, they have too much to lose by listening to actual experts, and they’ll aggressively censor any objection to their ideas in their communities. So how can we inject skepticism into a community that will dismiss it at best, or revolt against it at worst? We can’t. If we actually try to steer people in the right mindset to accept a conspiracy theory towards a debunking, no matter how unobtrusively we try to do it, we’ll just be fueling the fire and introducing a cure that’s worse than the disease. While it may sound bizarre to just let conspiracy theorists run wild and free, if we do, we can always point to the fact that we’re letting them do as they wish and dismiss their theories based on facts and evidence. After all, what we’re really afraid of is conspiracy theorists fueled by their beliefs doing harm to others or themselves and when that happens, there is a legal and procedural framework for handling such incidents. Conspiracy theories have been around for a very long time, basically since the birth of civilization with the first networks of powerful city states and they’ll be with us forever. Why should we task ourselves with the fool’s errand of fact checking them into extinction?

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  • Paul451

    “Wouldn’t they just declare it as a nefarious plot to stop them?”

    …And for once they’d be right.

    In my opinion the self-reinforcing effect of the wackos is their own vaccine. The more they close themselves off from reality, the harder it is for them to recruit new members, because you need to be so far inside the tent to even understand the language used. Eventually they wrap themselves up in their own universe and pinch off from the rest of us.

    If you expose them to contrary arguments too often, they become smarter, more adaptable, more devious in recruiting. Rather than reduce their influence, you make them stronger.

  • Anonymous

    I hadn’t heard of Morozov but I’ll be sure to check them out – sounds interesting!

    I’d thought about the confirmation bias-effects of search engines before as well, and did a simple experiment to search for some phenomenon X, and compare the number of hits to when I searched for the phrase “X is a hoax”. I found that there are more hits when X is a real phenomenon than when X is an actual hoax!

    You can read more here:
    http://topologicoceans.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/people-believe-weird-things/