When a professional skeptic, engineer, or a scientist says that they hate to be a pedant before starting a debunking of a popular conspiracy or hoax gone viral, don’t believe them. They do. They absolutely love it. There are few things more fun than carpet bombing lies and paranoia with facts and statistics, which is why the SIWOTI Syndrome had such a long, popular run, and why the first six years of WoWT’s output can be safely categorized as a daily manifestation of it. But over the last few years, it feels as if fact checks and debunkings turned into infinite rounds with a punching bag. You hit as hard as you can until you’re so exhausted you can barely stand, yet as you gasp for air, the bag just wobbles unharmed.
Now, this is not to say that debunkings don’t get widely shared or still aren’t useful for those who haven’t heard of the Great Replacement or Plandemic, and have no idea what it is. The problem comes when people make an ideological decision and now seem unreachable by reason, going to school board meetings to accuse teachers of instructing children in ritualistic cannibalism with the zeal of a deranged extra from Soylent Green as per a key branch of the QAnon conspiracy. As they’re plastered all over the internet and ridiculed as escaped mental patients, they keep on doubling down and retreating farther and farther into their fantasy worlds. And if they do manage to walk away from these beliefs, the process can take many months, if not years.
So, why have people become immune to debunkings and fact checks? Before we answer that question, we have to acknowledge that there isn’t very much evidence that debunking was all that effective in the first place. People still refused to believe a reality that didn’t match exactly what they wanted, they still made angry comments attacking the fact checkers, and they still clung to whatever they wanted to believe. But since debunkings and fact checks dominated the timelines of their feeds and their favorite conspiracies were being discussed on obscure and usually off-putting forums, mass coordinated opposition to the real world was rare and fizzled out quickly. Then social media exploded and changed the game.
When information was mostly disseminated by well-funded publications, there was a swarm of gatekeepers deciding what met appropriate editorial criteria. Of course, those gatekeepers had many faults, mainly that they were prone to silencing voices that strayed too far off the course they were comfortable with, or of those who didn’t look like them, or share their values. But for all their imperfections, they did play one very valuable role. They deprived the truly bonkers and outlandish conspiracy theories and blatant tribalism of oxygen as much as they could. If you had the insane notion that the world was secretly ruled by a cabal of Satanic cannibals who force fed human meat to people across the world, they’d throw your screeds in the garbage.
Not so on social media. There, you can publish anything you want and the algorithms will take it from there, basing the spread of content based solely on engagement with it. It doesn’t have to be true or even remotely tethered to reality. All it has to do is make you click, share, or respond, and next thing you know, millions of feeds around the world explode with what sound less like a political worldview and more like a severe and violent pathology, the exact kind of stuff that any self-respecting gatekeeper of the past would’ve kept out of print as not to besmirch their outlet’s reputation. Meanwhile, social media companies simply count the clicks and deposit cash from ever more questionable advertisers, giving exactly zero shits about the consequences.
After social media companies tore down the old order for good or ill, and then completely and utterly abdicated any responsibility for what came next, disinformation flourished as if we were plunged back into the dark ages of yellow journalism and gossip being the primary sources of news for countless people. Given the hyperpartisan cultures of certain western nations, many of the nastiest rumors and conspiracy were amplified by partisan media so much so, they made their way into bills, laws, and policy stances of political parties and governments. This means what would’ve been an outrageous, scary chain letter meant to shake down your sheltered and easily scared older relatives for cash, is now a matter of personal identity.
In other words, anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon adherents can’t be talked out of their beliefs because holding on to those beliefs is their entire personality at this point. Many have literally nothing else going on for a wide variety of reasons which could easily fill a library of books on the subject. Those reasons don’t necessarily matter though, it’s the fact that being against something, rebelling against mainstream thoughts and ideas, no matter how edgy or innovative those thoughts and ideas may be, is now an entire personality, way of life, voting preference, and political affiliation all wrapped into one, a sort of Cult of Perpetual Outrage constantly plundered for money and votes by far right grifters and politicians.
This is why debunkings now seem like Sisyphean tasks. The debunkers think they’re simply attacking a flawed belief or bad information. To the person on the other side, the debunker is attacking their very core, and instead of “you’re wrong and this belief is being spread by bad actors for money and power,” they hear “your existence is a lie and you’re a bad person.” And this can be complicated by the fact that some of the people in question really are just objectively and irredeemably bad, and believe the lies because they justify their basest and most bigoted urges, while some more or less brainwashed themselves into becoming bad actors out of fear and ignorance, and cant admit it to themselves.
Because we’re no longer dealing with facts or even beliefs, but issues of identity, we have to dig much further than true or false and right or wrong, narrowing down how people build their social and political worlds. For thousands of years, identity was based on where you were born and where you went to worship. But with industrialization, that tidy relationship was shattered thanks to booming megacities and eye-popping declines in religious belief across the world. Where you were born and where you live may not be the same place — take it from someone who lives over 10,000 kilometers from his birthplace — and while you may be born indoctrinated into a certain faith, there’s a between one in four and one in two chance you’ll abandon it.
This is not ironclad, and there are statistics one can use to challenge this stance. For example, slightly over 7 in 10 Americans live within 18 miles of home, so you could argue that we still are very much rooted to our place of birth. But almost 9 out of 10 times it will be in a city or suburb rather than a small, tight knit town. As they grow up, they’re exposed to far more opinions and ideas, especially the nearly two thirds who were at least exposed to post-secondary education and became more comfortable changing their opinions and beliefs. You can see similar factors in play in the UK, where people live an average of 100 miles away from home, and roughly half participate in some sort of higher education.
Just image growing up in the same small town as several generations of your family, moving to a city to work in a factory, then having kids who aren’t interested in attending religious services, hang out with a more diverse group of friends with different backgrounds and ideas, going off to college, and coming back for vacations challenging long held dogmas. While to conservatives they sound brainwashed, the reality is that they’re just experimenting with figuring out what it is that they truly believe and agree with after being exposed to a barrage of different worldviews and encouraged to debate about their merits. In a system used to inter-generational conformity, any deviation sounds like radicalism.
And it’s this exact concern on which countless right wing grifters have seized since the 1960s, when it became apparent that times, they are a changin’, and the conformity of the past was in the cultural equivalent of hospice care. Just like today, they devoted endless hours across just about every media channel they could find to warn those scared of novelty and change that all change was an evil conspiracy against them, that they were perfect how they were, that every aspiration for something new and greater was just the siren call of the Satanic Socialist Marxist Cabal secretly running the world, and that if they want to stop all that change, they need to send money to certain people and institutions, and vote a certain way.
Why would anyone listen to such blatant conspiratorial and exploitative nonsense? Partially, the truth is that change is very difficult for many people and the new world they were being shown is uncertain and complicated, requiring constant reflections, self-assessment, and correction. By contrast, authoritarian fascism offers a simple, crystal clear guide to life. Hate these people, vote for members of this party, here’s what your spiritual beliefs look like, just follow these rules and we’ll sing paeans to you and hurt everyone you don’t like for any reason in acts of degenerate, performativer cruelty. Self-betterment? Education? Having to change your worldview? Fuck that noise. Reject the future, return to retrograde nostalgia seen through rose-colored glasses.
But perhaps the most insidious part of forming one’s identity around fear of change or scientific advancement, and pathological rejection of any modern mainstream consensus is that it allows people to claim they’ve accomplished something simply for existing with the right skin color and gender. Absolutely nothing is required of them but obedience and tithes, and quite a few people are more than happy to embrace that easy way out of a confusing and complicated life of a very conflicted civilization trying to transition from factory-driven consumerism to something else as it tries to figure out what that something else is on the fly. Call them out on it in that exact way and brace yourself for vicious blowback, if not violence in response.
No one wants to be the villain of their own story. Even the guards of Nazi extermination camps thought of themselves as good people, proud, patriotic purebloods saving the world from the evil machinations of the Jews, migrants, the poor, and the disabled who were only out to rob them of their livelyhoods left unchecked. We hear these same exact talking points shamelessly voiced again and again from far right propagandists around the world pretending they had nothing to do with fascist and Nazi ideology, and tens of millions have bought into them so thoroughly, they’ve resurrected a conspiracy theory from the dawn of facism to explain away rapid automation and self-destructive voting habits as a sinister plot against them.
Yet despite all the simplicity and ease of mind authoritarianism and pathological contrarianism brings, it comes at a heavy cost. By battling imaginary problems instead of real ones, all while encouraging escalating attacks against both fellow citizens and those with the expertise to help solve what ails the disciples of this cult of fear, this ideology breeds more graft and even bigger and more difficult problems to solve. More followers die of disease, suicide, accidents, or just a worse quality of life. More of them become victims of scams or exploitation. More of their small towns rot away into nothing as they’re terminally neglected. And more of their kids will leave, never to return. The statistics we have on the matter are daming.
So, here’s the dilemma. Debunkers and skeptics want to tackle hoaxes and disinformation not because they just want to be right, but because they know what happens when liars, grifters, and abusers are not held to account. Entire nations can suffer in the process, including millions of very real people who’ll feel the brunt of that suffering on their own hides. But the people they want to help have now constructed identities dedicated to opposing science and reason itself, so for them to change their minds would mean a lot of unpleasant admissions and self-reflection they don’t want to do, or are just downright incapable of doing. The result is bound to be a very nasty stalemate as empathy meets rage at entropy itself.
Think of this as trying to help someone who not only doesn’t want help, but thinks that the help you’re offering is actually meant to hurt them. They don’t know how, but there’s a constant evil voice whispering in their ear that it must be, building ever more elaborate and scary scenarios with ever more gruesome and outlandish detail. Instead of hammering away at the mistaken or harmful claim in question, you have to focus on that voice and tear down its credibility, ask a lot of questions that force the person to think for themselves about how likely it is that any of it may be true. Psychologists call this checking the facts, and it’s a tool in dialectical behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders.
Since you’re battling something resembling a deep-seated, constantly, deliberately aggravated neurosis rather than discussing a fact, you have to treat it as such. Make the person question themselves, and allow them to retain agency when getting themselves back to reality because being swayed by an outsider is a dangerous and embarrassing situation in their minds. This is why you won’t see former QAnon followers say their de-conversion happened after a chat with a skeptic. Their de-conversation stories always start with their own double-take about a fact they held near and dear to their hearts after which they worked backwards to investigate, and then ultimately renounce their beliefs over a period of months.
You can probably see the issue with this approach already. Instead of fact checking, you’re now doing therapy, and that conspiratorial voice goading them on is still booming in the background. Plus, this approach may work with family or friends but is almost guaranteed to enrage random strangers spoiling for a fight, with absolutely no interest in a conversation. While you try to put them on the couch or swat away their talking points, they just continue to regurgitate the same falsehoods with the tenacity of a machine because this act of regurgitation is now their reason for being. Ultimately, they want to drag you down to their level and beat you with experience in stubbornness, and they’re not going to give you a choice to seek a higher ground.
No, the underlying problem here isn’t that we have to become mental health professionals to get more people to join the real world, it’s that we have to tackle the problem of the runaway social media rumor mill. For decades we’ve been told that everyone has an unassailable right to free speech, even the most abhorrent amongst us, and while their concern is understandable, it runs afoul of the Paradox of Tolerance. It’s one thing to tolerate the existence of awful beliefs and lies but it’s another to mandate that we give them a platform, especially when the cornerstone of the beliefs in question involves silencing dissent by force if need be. When social media is literally profiting from getting people killed, a line has to be drawn.
As much as professional propagandists and grifters rage about “cancel culture” and bans on incorrigible spreaders of lies and propaganda, fearing that they may be next, the fact is that we simply aren’t ready for a social media free-for-all and never were. Most platforms were created with the utopian ideas of genteel academics who thought that we can all debate the facts, come to an objective consensus, and create a peaceful, unified civilization in the end. Meanwhile, in the real world, there are a lot of people who couldn’t care less about peace and unity or debate, and social media’s effect has been the exact opposite. Instead of coming together, societies are being unglued for power and profit.
Right now, the media business is set up to generate clicks and ratings, then sell ads. To do that, it needs outrage and controversy, especially on important topics. This is exactly why Facebook’s algorithms prioritize rage-inducing content. This is why cable news shows refuse to bring on an actual scientist studying climate change without a denialist cashing six figure checks from some amoral think tank to contradict actual science with a torrent of bullshit. This is why punditry more or less replaced expertise and fact checking in favor of virality. Our incentives and profit motives created a world where truth is irrelevant, facts are whatever you want them to be, you can mute anything with which you disagree, and all that matters is views and follows.
Until we figure out how to tackle that profit motive and bring back some sort of critical thinking and gatekeeping back into how we communicate, and learn how to ignore the furious cries of those who benefit from elevating the sanctity of using one’s right to free speech over what was actually said, debunking falsehoods and propaganda won’t become easier. It will continue to be the equivalent of fighting a war face to face, armed only with handguns while your opponents have heavy artillery and air cover. We’ve defeated yellow journalism before and we can use the same tactics to fight its social media equivalent. In the middle of very real global crises, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a matter of literal survival.