And yet, 100 years ago, when Sir Arthur’s fame was at full flood throughout the English-speaking world, he was completely taken in by two schoolgirls in Yorkshire who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies and gnomes.
Even the rational can be led, seduced or beguiled into believing the incredible. Education is no defense. Like his famous father, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has a Harvard pedigree and a law degree from the University of Virginia, with a stint at the London School of Economics in between. None of that was a match for the magnetic pull of the anti-vaccine delusion.
Are we inherently gullible? Research says no: Most adults have well-functioning machinery for detecting baloney, but there’s a common bug in the machine. Faced with a novel idea or new circumstances, we gravitate to information that fits our already existing beliefs. As Sherlock Holmes put the problem: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” This bug has always been exploited by people seeking money, power — or both. But with the rise of social media, the world’s propagandists, con artists and grifters find their search for suckers easier than ever.
Witness the grubby exercise known as “#Plandemic.” The risible video is the work of an opportunistic Internet filmmaker whose projects include a clip about his 5-year-old son’s discovery of “the truth” about the wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In his latest film, he advances the conspiracy theory that Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, billionaire Bill Gates and various other malefactors are spreading a manmade novel coronavirus because they enjoy making people sick and hope to profit on an eventual vaccine. Or some similar nonsense along those lines. And there’s more: Beaches were closed to keep Americans away from the “microbes” in seawater that protect against covid-19.
It won’t do to shrug and say, well, no one’s going to believe that. Not when the creator of Sherlock Holmes believes in fairies and gnomes. A coronavirus conspiracy is mild B.S. compared with the great conspiracy theory of 2016, the weapons-grade hooey known as #Pizzagate. In that viral sensation, important political figures supposedly ran a child-abuse ring out of the basement of a pizzeria that, by the way, doesn’t have a basement.
People believe in a “#Plandemic” because it fits into existing convictions. A lot of people already believe — not without reason — that pharmaceutical companies cash in on suffering. Many people have heard that government labs do research on biological weapons. All true. Government has hemorrhaged credibility in recent years — even with regard to veteran public servants such as Fauci. All of these mind-sets are potential vectors for the viral #plandemic.
Chastened by #Pizzagate in 2016, when digital media giants slumbered while their platforms spread madness, Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo shut down access to #Plandemic and cleansed their websites of its toxic traces. By the time they pulled it, though, more than 8 million people had already seen or shared the video.
This is vexing, for it suggests that — despite all their algorithms — the tech behemoths are ineffectual when it comes to filtering B.S. from the nation’s atmosphere. By the time they finally flipped the kill switch, the video and its contents were long gone into the ether, where the spread continued through copies and allusions until a new video can be slipped past the gatekeepers.
If the likes of Facebook, with its vast resources, can’t handle the hokum that proliferates through social media, what’s a nation to do? Laws restricting free speech can be a slippery slope; I don’t think we ought to start in that direction. Instead, we need a more discriminating and better-informed audience for social media. Americans need to understand that they are being actively targeted for disinformation campaigns by people and forces pursuing their own agendas. Conspiracy-monger Alex Jones wants to sell them overpriced nutritional supplements. Anti-vaxxers are hawking books and miracle cures. Vladimir Putin and the mandarins of Beijing are pushing the decline of the United States and the death of the Western alliance.
Some want your money. Some want your mind. Citizenship in the Internet era demands a heightened commitment to mental hygiene and skepticism. We have to learn that the information that fits neatly into our preconceptions is precisely the information we must be wary of. And even in these wild times, we must heed the late Carl Sagan, who preached that “extraordinary claims” — like grand conspiracies and healing microbes — “require extraordinary proof.”
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.