In the wilds of YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and other social media worlds, at some point you will come across a person asking what appears to be a simple question, or a video with a colourful thumbnail and intriguing title.
“Want to find out why the horizon is flat?”, “Watch the Secret History of the World!,” or “You won’t believe this crazy NASA footage!” are common clickbait templates, prodding at your curious mind and appearing ever so often thanks to feed algorithms and paid advertising. As a skeptic, you may believe yourself immune, but sometimes the very intrigue of whatever nonsense is behind that link can force you to check it out.
Nonsense, of course, is what it often turns out to be. Flat Earthers, New Age woo peddlers, and evangelical conspiracy mongers all infect social media with their various ideas and proposals that only a few years ago could never have made it into the mainstream. Such ideas were left to small cliques with e-mail chains, underground newsletters or free forums, not in our everyday where it is to be mocked as an amusing end piece to the nightly news.
The problem of course is that social media and the internet have amplified these alternative ideas to reality to such a point that it can become inescapable. Its no longer your grandmother forwarding you an occasional e-mail from Peter Popoff, but his Google ads appearing in your browser. Facebook arguments drift off into unrelated tangents involving 9/11 conspiracies or men’s rights advocacy. Simply using a hashtag like #FlatEarth, even ironically, will get you added onto a list by a fervent believer. Its all nonsense, we know this, but it is everywhere.
While you and I may have the good sense to train a skeptical eye towards this stuff, the problem is that many do not. Along with raising the volume of the voices of a tiny minority of true believers comes the inevitable rush of the more mainstream but non-critical thinking masses. The absolutely insane numerologists who claimed the Rapture was coming with the tetrad of Blood Moons last year caused major news outlets to write up commentaries on it. A New York Post article claimed the recently discovered Planet Nine could send asteroids hurtling towards Earth, causing NASA to be flooded with panicked people concerned about this far-off, little understood and possibly non-existent solar body. Little things like inane photos of angels walking on rainbows make the news constantly, and get voted up on /r/Christianity.
People are sometimes just too busy to even think about such things, so click “Like” and forget. What’s worse is that religion, which already asks people to suspend disbelief on supernatural events, often makes people gullible and prone to relying on ‘common sense’ – as in, of course Jesus existed, its common sense!, or, the Earth is flat, look at the horizon! – despite the complex reality of the world around us. This wouldn’t really be an issue, except these people vote and become elected officials.
Right now, especially across the American south, there are legislators listening to the ramblings of senile and bigoted preachers, and justify discrimination based on faulty logic, bad statistics, and the “will of the people”.
Whether or not they believe these excuses is besides the point – they’re doing it for the votes, to secure their jobs by relying on a tiny but vocal and passionate minority who are stuck in a feedback loop on social media. A bubble mentality is encouraged, where ideas, however faulty, receive positive reinforcement for attacking the “debunkers” or “libtards” and currying favour, especially for politicians. Nothing gets challenged because any challenge is a threat to be ostracized, made fun of, or overwhelmed – anything but welcomed. See Trump, Donald, for an example of this.
Put it all together – the amplification of tiny minority views, the gullibility of a info-gluttonous society, and an insular world where your crazy idea cannot be disputed – and social media has been the cause of some of the worst woes we face today. Yes, progress continues apace in most cases, but holdouts find solace on social media, where they can rant about the “gay agenda,” lament the Muslim refugees coming over, or demand action on Obama’s plan to destroy Christianity. Their voices are heard by those in power who only see votes to add to their majorities. Reality does not matter when its opposite is just as useful.
Now that I’ve depressed you, where am I going with all of this?
Social media has, in a way, brought out some of the worst in modern society. Yet the same tools used by those who reject a positive reality work just as well for us.
Immediately after the horrid ascension of North Carolina’s HB-2, hundreds of thousands got on social media to protest and businesses, even more sensitive to popular opinion than politicians, listened. On YouTube there exists a bevy of personalities who make science and skepticism fun, and you have not experienced true awe until you’ve listened to Aron Ra beat down creationism, or listened to the siren call of a planet’s magnetosphere from probes sent out from Earth decades ago. And on podcasts such as NRR, you get to sit and listen to a bunch of friends discuss seriously issues surrounding religious bigotry and nonsense, while having a laugh all at the same time.
This is all well and good, but we also sometimes fall prey to the same insularity that conspiracy mongers enter into. Listening to podcasts and following Redditers who agree with you is great and makes you feel welcome, part of a community, but it can also cut you off from the world around you. Some people need that due to their situation, which is absolutely fine – for someone like me, who does not need that separation, its a danger, and in some ways irresponsible.
Most of you reading are people who likely know someone whose religious views cause them to vote against others, or believes Monsanto will kill us all, or something bizarre and dangerous. Some of you have backgrounds or experiences that go against a narrative promoted by small circles of bigots. The vast majority of you are voters with views and opinions on issues but feel ignored by politicians and media, especially if you’re an American.
If you are such a person, and I know all of you are, and your situation allows you to be open without serious consequence, I implore you to do so.
Get on social media, create a YouTube account, start a podcast or simply offer your opinion to whoever asks for it or gives the opportunity. That means comment sections, city meetings, podcasts that ask people to write something up, whatever – your voice should be heard just as much as the fool next to you.
Why, you may ask? Simple. The biggest danger to the religious mind, the conspiracy theorist, or the homophobe is having their views challenged. Not necessarily to change their minds, but those who may listen in, read the argument or stumble upon a video proclaiming the Apocalypse. Let people know there is something those offering this idea to you are not seeing or mentioning, sometimes for a reason – and, crucially, invite them to learn more.
The fence sitters also need attention, of course. Remember that South Dakota was spared a similar bill to HB-2 not because of a popular majority against, but because Governor Daugaard, a Republican, met with and listened to the stories of transgender individuals who would be hurt by the proposed legislation, and acted upon his personal convictions to veto the bill – plus some threats by businesses, of course! Still, a positive result that came about despite the odds against it, all because someone committed to helping another open their mind.
It requires activism on your part, at whatever level you choose, but simply challenging the crazy will go a long way to helping people get out or avoid the woo feedback loop. You can be aggressive or passive as you please – sometimes you need a soft touch, sometimes people need to be called out on their shit. Something as simple as writing to your legislator that your vote is lost if they decide to listen to a bigot or science denier can be the most effective action you can take.
Its up to you, but do something – don’t let the crazies have the final say. You have something to contribute to the fight. Reality will thank you for it.