As wildfires rage out of control in California, Oregon and Washington, authorities have also been busy trying to put out fires on social media.
False information has flooded Facebook and other social media channels blaming the fires on arsonists from either far-left or far-right groups.
Some posts blamed antifa activists and others said the group the Proud Boys were responsible for fires that have scorched wide swaths of Oregon and Washington state, causing the evacuations of thousands this week.
“Remember when we said to follow official sources only,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon posted. “Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON.”
From politics to the pandemic, from suicide prevention efforts to battling communicable diseases, conspiracy theories, rumors and disinformation have undermined the efforts of authorities.
Social media has become the bane of best intentions during the chaos of 2020 as the whole world tries to deal with unprecedented events.
It’s like everyone has been given the key to unlock the secrets of communication, and instead of opening up a world of enlightenment, we have released death, misery and evil, just like Pandora.
But unlike Pandora in the Greek myth, it wasn’t our overwhelming curiosity that did us in, it was our own anxiety.
What used to be confined to the fringes of society now has gone mainstream. Take conspiracy theories. Local politicians now use them in regular discourse as if they are factual.
Take Republican Rep. Paul Gosar. He recently retweeted a video pushing a theory that the Democratic Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes essentially rigged the 2018 vote counting to produce Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s victory over Martha McSally. McSally had a narrow lead election night but after all the mail-in ballots were counted over a near two-week period, Sinema ended up winning by 2.3%
No evidence has ever surfaced of voter fraud in the Arizona election.
But that didn’t stop Gosar from tweeting that the video did a “supreme job of taking apart 2018 and how ballot fraud stole her victory. Listen and understand why the left wants mail-in ballots nationally and how easy it is to steal votes.”
Even the White House’s nominee for a top Pentagon post repeatedly spread conspiracy theories that a former CIA director tried to overthrow President Donald Trump and even have him assassinated.
The “birthers,” “Pizzagate,” anti-vaxxers. The rise in conspiracy theories seems to parallel the polarization of our nation. Conspiracy theories are the main force dividing our country.
University of Chicago political science Professor Eric Oliver, who’s been studying conspiracy theories, says his research shows that instead of liberal and conservative, we are actually divided by intuitionists and rationalists.
Oliver says the rationalist can see clear logic and deduction of facts and claims. While the intuitionist relies on emotion generated by uncertainty that may seem to make sense.
“We have very strong natural inclinations. And so, when we’re facing something that’s unclear, our intuitions are, let’s find an answer as quickly as possible,” Oliver said during the Big Brains podcast. “Moreover, our intuitions also draw on our anxiety. So if we’re feeling anxious, we look for an explanation that rationalizes that emotional experience.”
Oliver went on to tell the story about how when his son was 5 he wouldn’t go to sleep because he thought there was a monster in the closet. Oliver then searched the closet and showed his son there was nothing there. But his son replied: “you know Dad, if there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I afraid?”
He said he didn’t really have a good answer for his son to that.
“But that’s basically how our intuitions work, we feel fear and we look for explanations that accord with our own feelings of anxiety and in some ways, this is what conspiracy theories are out there doing. Since we’re feeling afraid, there must be a monster in the closet.”
Gosar has built up a reputation for citing numerous conspiracy theories on social media and in interviews.
He must have a big closet.
You can reach Andy Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org.