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Journal of No. 118

Escaping the Rabbit Hole, by Mick West @ 03:08 pm

 How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Mick West helped found the videogame company Neversoft, and after Tony Hawk's Pro Skater made him a bajillionaire, he could turn his time to more important things, like fighting conspiracies about chemtrails on the internet.

The book is intended as a real How-To guide in helping someone out conspiracy theories. It's a little idiosyncratic (in a good way) in that it is really intended as a guide for you to use on "your friend". West literally crafts this as how to help a close friend or loved one, so it's more intended that way instead of dealing with random people on the internet (though that's where many of his ideas were honed).

In the briefest sense, his advice is to foster honesty and respect -- understand that just as you know what's true and want to convince your friend to discard his false ideas, your friend also knows (or thinks he knows) what's true and wants to convince you to discard your false ideas. So just standing on I'm right and you're wrong doesn't get you anywhere. He suggests fostering more discussion where you explore the matter together and then...

Stick to the facts. Find something key to your friend's worldview that you can address in black and white.

One of the excellent details in the book are a few personal stories from people who have put their conspiracy theories aside and they describe how it happened to them. Or at least to move where they are on the conspiratorial scale.

My personal interest in not so much in conspiracy theories, per se, but scientific nonsense and political 'fake news'. But obviously there is a lot of overlap. If 9/11 was a conspiracy carried out by George W Bush, that has political overtones. If the schools are indoctrinating children with EVILution, and fluoridating their brains, or vaccinating them with poisons, there's a scientific conspiracy afoot. So I think the techniques and insights in West's book can easily apply to related situations.

Escapes by sudden realization come only after a build-up of new information that is initially strongly resisted. While they are learning new things, they are rejecting those things as false disinformation. Eventually their knowledge of the evidence against their theory builds up and leads to a more sudden realization they were wrong, a breaking of the dam, and a rapid movement over their own demarcation line. But there’s a single prime mover here in both routes: exposure to new information. Conspiracy theorists flourish in walled gardens. When asked where they get their news they will often point only to alternative fringe sites like Alex Jones’ Infowars, or more esoteric conspiracy theory sites like Rense.com, or even David Icke’s reptilian Illuminati related news.

Something I see on occasion in the creation/evolution battles is that a creationist has finally decided to accept the gauntlet. He's going to defeat evolution using the power of science by studying science the honest way and showing where the mistakes are. Most creationists are happy to play it safe and just listen to the professional creationists who just feed them what they want to hear. But these brave souls who venture into science expose themselves to new information, and sometimes the dam breaks. A recent case involving a former creationist now astronomer has been making the rounds. So in my own involvement in these debates online, I try to help spread information and facts, hoping to be part of the solution for some of them. Most of the frequent participants are pretty set in their ways. West sees that as well, but sometimes there's still hope:

There’s some people you definitely cannot get through to, there’s just too much ego, too many Thanksgiving dinners they have invested in. There was one guy I was just explaining how claims have counterclaims, and there was this great process of critical thinking. I had been showing him the NIST 9/11 slides and he realized he was wrong at that moment. This guy just started screaming. It stuck in his head that he would have to go back to his family and explain that he was incorrect. He almost had a nervous breakdown.

Although he's ultimately hopeful, he sees a lot of dangers in the online world. First off... YouTube:

Sometimes they watch the same video over and over again. You get the sense from talking to them that it’s something like a drug, that the “truth” they feel is in the video is activating some kind of function in their brain, resonating with them
The data-driven algorithm has evolved to recognize that the way to get people to watch more videos is to direct them downhill, down the path of least resistance. Without human intervention the algorithm has evolved to perfect a method of gently stepping up the intensity of the conspiracy videos that it shows you so that you don’t get turned off, and so you continue to watch. They get more intense because the algorithm has found (not in any human sense, but found nonetheless) that the deeper it can guide people down the rabbit hole, the more revenue it can make.


Obviously, we've seen a lot of false propaganda being spread as facts recently, and West thinks it will get worse as AI improves and fake people and bots start to spread more and more disinformation. We've seen just this week how some crudely slowed video of Nancy Pelosi can be used to suggest she's drunk, and you'll get a retweet from the President. Imagine how things will get when 'deep fakes' become possible. Seeing is believing, they say, but it will become more and more important to source your photo and video evidence.

Or am I just being paranoid? [Cue Twilight Zone music]


Journal of No. 118