Stop Reading Vitriol Online

This is by no means a comprehensive study; rather, it is an appeal to common sense, the common sense to avoid the rubbish which clutters up so much of the Internet. It is in the Internet where opinions metastasize without end, where false information is passed on with a speed and ferocity overwhelming the nuanced truth. Never has it been more important to exercise one’s own judgment – by “exercise of judgment” I mean the process of balancing considerations and rationalising decisions, with an eye to making considered, sensible conclusions. I emphasise this because it is all too easy to fall in with the opinions of others, determined perhaps by one’s predilections and no more. This way of making decisions is no better than those of the Islamic Fundamentalist zealots, the ones who ultimately end up as suicide bombers, nor is it better than the similarly extremist Crusaders who were fuelled by religious zealotry and expansionist ambitions. Unfortunately, this sort of mass thinking has taken root in the Internet (in “Cyberbalkanisation”, as I will discuss later) and it is often those who most vehemently believe others are misled who are most likely to participate in the horde mentality.

Modern means of communication (through social media) are optimised for the promulgation of ‘fake news’, a term for stories (usually political in nature) of questionable veracity passed off as the ultimate truth and usually calling for a highly charged political reaction. There have been those who credit fake news for the Trump Presidency, accusing the Trump campaign of deliberately promulgating falsehoods about Democratic candidates – all this and more attests to the seriousness of the fake news problem. It has become somewhat unhelpful to ask whether some Internet rumour is true or not, since it has become so difficult to separate truth from fiction. People nevertheless try, with every story having at least some believers. Case in point – ‘flat earthers’, those who believe the earth is flat despite having no cogent explanation, and despite the fact that even within the community there are big disagreements as to the shape of the earth (is the earth a circle, a square or a triangle? Where does the world end?). Their beliefs are not so different from adherents to conspiracy theories about how NASA faked the moon landing and duped an entire world.

Yet they do have a point: do not believe everything you hear. How can we be sure that the moon landing occurred? That the Earth is a globe? Pictures can be doctored… but scientific speculation cannot. And therein lies the foundation for much of what we know “for sure” –scientific theorems and speculations. These are sometimes complex – no wonder one can look at them, not understand and deem them false – but not always. I personally believe the best evidence for something is the fact that it works. How else could we build such towering structures and such speedy mobile devices? Could it be that physics and engineering can be harnessed to Humanity’s advantage?

It is futile to attempt to know with absolute certainty (meaning, with such certainty that brooks no argument) – consider the Duhem-Quine Thesis: it is impossible to test a particular scientific hypothesis in isolation, because that hypothesis must necessarily rely on one or more assumptions. When we test the “weight” of an object, we use a weighing scale – but we assume the weighing scale works as intended. It might not – we just assume it does. We might see an analogy with the social sciences, where Economics relies upon the assumption of the rational man. Many men are decidedly irrational, but we assume anyway, because it allows us to construct systems that approximate human behaviour and which works (sometimes). The alternative would be to have nothing, which would leave us all groping around in the dark. There is always possibility for argument, but we can do no better. Those who must explore how to know with certainty might do better by taking up a course of study in epistemology.

So, the mistake made by the ‘flat earthers’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’ is not simply “being wrong”, for how could you be sure that they are wrong you are correct, without simply asserting so? How could you believe your eyes, without asserting that they are in working order? The mistake is rather that the ‘flat earthers’ do not understand that one cannot be absolutely certain; we accept these assertions, and the assertions of scientific proof because it works, it is cogent, and no other explanation is as cogent. After all, the ‘flat earth theory’ is riddled with inconsistencies and absurdities (as already pointed out, there are big disagreements even within the movement), compared to the more coherent perspective that the Earth is a globe.

The ‘flat earth theory’, although prima facie absurd to the reasonable onlooker, shows us why fake news is such a problem. If people can believe that the Earth is flat, why can’t they believe more plausible (no matter that they are false) stories of politicians supporting this unpopular policy or that? Politicians spout more rubbish than they do useful information anyway, so it is not surprising that it is so easy for political statements falsely attributed to proliferate. An additional element adding to the confusion is the usually strong political stances of onlookers, predilections which colour their view and make them more open to believing this lie or that.

Which brings be to the problem of Cyberbalkanisation, also termed Splinternet. The Internet is a haven for all sorts of groups and ideologies and this has led to the creation of communities (‘safe spaces’, if you like, to appropriate leftist (SJW) terminology) where members seek to avoid having their views challenged by congregating in places (ie, forums) with like persons. This is something which happens to all views/perspectives, whether left or right, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It is human nature to seek like persons, whether similar in physical makeup (White or Black) or political perspective. This is a ‘splintering’ of the internet community into groups with specific interests, to the exclusion of contradictory or hostile interests. The name is derived from the Balkans, a historically volatile region in Europe subdivided by languages, religions and cultures, and which has been the site for much wars and international politicking.

I am of opinion that partaking too much in this Cyberbalkanisation is harmful to the mind, especially when it is a balkanisation of different types of vitriol. It narrows the mind to a certain type of belief, to the exclusion of all else. At its worst, it leads to a violent strain of extremism stoked by the horde mentality within the groups. There is no multitude of opinions in the mind of someone like this, there is only the dichotomy of “right” and “wrong” (with no doubt as to who is wrong or right), the morally good community and the depraved “other”. This sort of thinking pervades all ideologies and is seen among the followers of both left and right. The issue is not so much who is right or wrong (for this is a contentious issue which no resolution is forthcoming as long as members stick to their horde mentality), but which is the more cogent. Unfortunately, the horde mentality deprives participants of their rational faculties, leaving them as mindless purveyors of vitriol.

What can one do in the sea of false information? One can reject the horde mentality and everything it stands for: slavish belief in established truths (even if that truth is that the Earth is a globe, one cannot simply assert so; one must understand the nuance in something being certainly true or only accepted by virtue of there not being a more cogent explanation), dismissal of hostile perspectives for no other reason than that they contradict personal opinion and a penchant for knee-jerk reactions. The best one can do when faced with questionable information is to exercise judgment, keeping in mind the possibility of falsehood, embellishment or exaggeration. The aim is to come to a considered decision as to what is right, which can be rationally explained and which can be abandoned when a more cogent explanation points to a contradictory position. Moralistic talk is unhelpful and only further divides an already fractured world.

Frederick Yorck



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