Back in the days before the internet and social media, the closest thing you got to someone with genuinely ludicrous ideas was a crowded pub. Without anywhere else to go you were forced to listen to their bullshit for a couple of minutes.
These days the nonsense-talkers are on social media. These platforms allow them to publish their opinions to a wider audience. And, with social media, likeminded thinkers can team up to support one another — nothing happens in a vacuum now.
Traditional media — newspapers, magazines and the TV networks — in the UK have restrictions on what they can and can’t say. They’re held accountable and so they have to consider their responsibilities to the regulators. Social media platforms don’t need to provide the same degree of accountability. They retroactively police content, and usually not very effectively.
Free speech comes with responsibilities and social media platforms have repeatedly broken these responsibilities — allowing their users to publish racist material, hate comments, to bully and harass other users, and to publish lies.
Publishing to the web is publishing. Just because it’s being done by a ‘non-professional content creator’ shouldn’t mean that it’s unaccountable.
Why is this not being regulated effectively?
- Social media is seen as freedom of expression. Governments are terrified of regulating ‘free speech’ in liberal democracies because they’re afraid of being labelled authoritarian or fascist.
- The owners of these platforms are powerful and influential in both government circles and the ‘establishment’.
- The government doesn’t see it as a serious problem.
- Policing social media is expensive, so the social media platforms do as little as possible.
It’s debatable if misinformation and stupid logic is on the rise, but it definitely seems to be more visible. In tandem with social media there appears to be a lowering of standards with regards to how world leaders address issues. More and more of them are using social media to talk to their supporters in the tone of a pub conversation.
President Trump has recently said some strange things about shining lights ‘into’ the human body, and injecting bleach directly into the body to cure Covid-19. Injecting bleach into the human body obviously isn’t something that anyone should be doing — it could be lethal.
Stupid logic uses the syllogism, taking two true or logical facts to arrive at an absurd conclusion. For example:
- Bleach kills germs and viruses.
- A person with Covid-19 has a virus in his or her body.
- Therefore: Injecting bleach into the human body is a cure for Coronavirus.
The weird thing is that stupid logic might lack common sense and be complete bullshit, but it does have undeniable reasoning to it, even if that reasoning is bogus.
During the 2019 Covid-19 lockdown there’s been a rise in stupid logic — from ideas that the disease (which is a virus) is spread by 5G phone masts (this feels like something out of the film They Live). Masts have in the past been linked to cancer, which is of course a worry. But it’s ridiculous to say that they spread Coronavirus.
There’s also a lot of stupid logic based around racist ideas, individual freedom, anti-equality and anti-rights issues, women’s bodies, and public health. One can argue there’s a corresponding rise in superstition, and other bogus cultural fears.
Individual freedom is often cited as a reason to refuse to participate in public health inoculation programs. So called ‘anti-vaxers’ (or anti-vaccination, or vaccine hesitant) fight against compulsory inoculation essentially because they don’t trust the government. They believe the individual should be free to choose not to be vaccinated. Sometimes there is a political dimension because public health services are perceived as ‘socialist’.
During the 2019 ‘lockdown’ people protested about the ‘lockdown’, believing that government restrictions were anti-business, and infringed on their personal rights.
The so called ‘post truth’ world is really a catchphrase for stupid logic. Stupid logic spreads lies, knowingly or through ignorance. Today the pub nutters and lords of the lies have an audience... thanks to social media.
I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that social media popularises lies and bullshit. Its defenders will say that it also popularises the truth — it’s just a tool people use to communicate. But there’s a fundamental question here — if bullshit has become the ‘new normal’ what does this mean for democracy in the longer term? Democracy needs a nuanced and responsible public debate in order to thrive.