Every generation, someone says that – and there are other favourite dramatic ideas that come round again and again. And when they do, people rally to them so eagerly. What is belief, that it can light such fires? Some get involved because they’re just longing to believe something. Some get involved because it’s such fun trying to shoot down a stupid idea (go on, admit it – are you one of the ones who clicked through to this blog to tell me I’m deluded, and that I do NOT know when the world will end?)
Most of us (I think) laugh at those ideas about illuminati and lizards and things but most of us have also, at one time or another fallen for ‘the myth of the day’. Perhaps it was the one about how leaving the EU would automatically make us rich and powerful, or the one about Jeremy Corbyn being anti-semitic, or the one about COVID being a government plot (or a Bill Gates plot). Or perhaps you reckon those are true, and some of the things I believe are red herrings. Please don’t worry about that – I know either of us could be right or wrong on some of them.
Are you sure the world is round?
Surely no-one would doubt that….. Surely? ……. What many of us are currently worried about is how quickly and efficiently those mad ideas spread, now we have social media, and that is why I’m recommending a Simon Edge novel today. He planned the book with one particular wild-idea effect in mind but he chose his own myth – that of the world being flat, and imagined how someone well placed to do so might spread the idea.
I asked Simon how he found out how it was done. He really appeared to have a startling amount of inside information. Turns out, he didn’t. He told me he’d looked at a series of the plague-like myths that had flown round the world, looked at the people who appeared to be behind them, and asked himself how he would go about such a project. Read this book! I think he’s right!
I asked which particular plague-like myths he had looked at. He replied…
Part of the power of social media is that it allows us to sort ourselves into self-selected bubbles where certain narratives dominate and, in some cases, go completely unchallenged.
During Brexit, the Leave campaign worked out they could use Facebook to target a particular anti-foreigner line to anyone they thought would be receptive. Remainers never even saw the ads – which meant the other side could get away with whatever false claims they wanted.
Twitter doesn’t permit that kind of covert operation, because all posts are available for everyone to see (unless you’re blocked). Nevertheless, it does organise people into echo chambers which can be immensely deceptive. If you support a certain party at an election and you spend a lot of time on Twitter, you can get a nasty shock when not everyone in the real world votes the same way as your bubble.
In those bubbles, misinformation and disinformation can spread like wildfire. The anti-vax movement has come out of nowhere, gaining extraordinary traction. My hunch is that it stems in large part from fear of needles: the entire conspiracy is a way of refusing the jab without admitting to the phobia.
Meanwhile two-thirds of Republicans still believe the November 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, despite zero evidence. That’s frightening: if they sincerely believe the election was rigged, which they genuinely do, it’s no wonder they’re angry and mutinous.
So those are three pretty major con tricks, but the one that drives me up the wall is the distortion of my own history. No, a transwoman didn’t throw the first brick at the Stonewall riots, because the person in question a) was a gay man and b) wasn’t even there until much later. This narrative has been deliberately created for political reasons, to make ‘LGBT’ seem like some natural grouping, rather than an invention of the past six years. Thanks in large part to social media, it has stuck fast.– Simon Edge, author of The End of the World is Flat
You’re probably with Simon on some of those issues and not others – but either way, we all need to understand how the plague-ideas spread, and what the consequences can be.
The consequences of believing your own soc media bubble
My own favourite example of the blinding effect of social media is the recent battle for the top job at Unite. Looking on Facebook and Twitter, I was sure, like most of the people I knew (on Facebook and Twitter) that it was a battle between Howard Beckett and Steve Turner, and we were all worried about whether the vote would split between those two, and allow a third candidate, Gerard Coyne, to get the job. Well, we all know what happened. There were FOUR candidates. But one of those candidates wasn’t spending so much time battling for our social media likes. She was touring the country, talking to Unite members about their workplaces. Guess who blind-sided all of us, and won the top job!
If you are one of those who *did* notice Sharon Graham, you will understand why those of us who *did* think sex matters had a good old laugh the day the social media hacks finally noticed us. On the left, one poor soul who thought the mysterious appearance of a journalist who wanted to talk about women – lesbians in particular – must have been nobbled by some kind of BBC Stazi. On the right, a bunch of his friends who thought we must have come out of nowhere. In their twitter-bubbles, they had actually convinced themselves that only ‘transphobes’ and conspiracy theorists knew, or cared, about why sex matters.
But battles over delusions started long before social media. Why else have we all heard of the Spanish Inquisition?
If you haven’t been involved in any of the battles of our generation, I think it’s really important to better understand how the rich and the powerful manipulate the public conversation, so please consider reading Edge’s novel, and join the conversation about how they happen, and how societies can find their way back to demanding evidenced truths.
If you have been involved in any of those battles, I think it’s really important that you get some relaxation, therapy and reassurance that you’re not mad. Edge’s novel will do that for you. Read it!
It’s also a seriously good laugh – especially Edge’s examples of what passes for conversation on Twitter. I really did hurt my ribs, reading those.
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