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The Internet is for conspiracy theories

The musical “Avenue Q” 10 years ago taught us that the Internet is for porn (and that everyone is a little bit racist). These days, though, the producers might want to update their song.

The Internet is for conspiracy theories.

Americans have long had an affection for conspiracy theories. One of the oldest is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a late-19th century antisemitic hoax that many people, especially in Europe, believed to be true and played a role in the Nazi decision to attempt to exterminate the Jews. It’s still being kicked around by white supremacists and Muslim leaders today.

The 20th century is loaded with conspiracies – FDR knew about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and let it happen to get America into the war; fluoridation of water was a communist plot to weaken our children; either the mob, Castro, Khrushchev or the U.S. military industrial complex killed Kennedy; the Tonkin gulf was an LBJ ruse to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam; Reagan negotiated with Iran to hold onto the hostages until after he was elected president; The Clintons had Vince Foster killed over Travelgate, and so on.

But those deluded ramblings of the paranoid few rarely made it to the mainstream, especially the mainstream press, which served as fact checker and gatekeeper of loony notions such as those.

But the Internet has stolen the gate keys from the MSM. Lunacy abounds on the Internet, though that in itself wouldn’t be all that bad if it remained relegated to the lunatic fringe.

But thanks to confirmation bias – people tending to only seek out and believe information they agree with and disbelieving anything they don’t agree with – some of these mad rantings are making it into the mainstream and even public policy.

Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts has embarked on a journey of advocacy journalism this summer, trying, as she puts it, to dekook the capitol. She’s identified 10 state legislators running for re-election who appear to be true believers of some of these conspiracies and have proposed legislation to combat them.

The two most common conspiracies among Roberts’ kooks is that the socialist commie pinkos running the U.S. government are trying to unify Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to create some kind of pan North American country and that they’re going to let the U.N. take over the country. The notions are nonsense, but Rep. Carl Seel, a Phoenix Republican, is certain of them and keeps proposing bills to keep Arizona out of either.

He was also the state’s champion of the Birther Conspiracy – that President Obama was not born in Hawaii but Kenya – until just recently when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio stole the kooky Birther mantle from him.

Conservatives have a quite a long list of conspiracies they believe in, including that Obama has concentration camps ready to go and will start rounding up people who oppose him after the election; that Obama has used executive privilege to give him control over the Internet and all print and broadcast media; and that Fast and Furious was an Obama plot to take away gun rights. California Rep. Darrel Issa has admitted that he suspects as much and that belief is fueling his jihad against Attorney General Eric Holder.

Matt Drudge, proprietor of The Drudge Report, a news aggregator beloved by conservatives, was one of the first Internet entrepreneurs to steal the MSM’s gate keys. His site gets millions of page views a day even though the only content there are links to stories on other web sites. A report this week by the liberal website ThinkProgress.org, shows that Drudge gives credibility to many of these wackadoodle conspiracy sites by linking to their stories. His fire hose of web traffic gives them millions of page views and raises their status with search engines, thereby making their hokum easier to find and aiding their proliferation into the mainstream.

But liberals have nutty theories too, namely that President Bush blew up the World Trade Center to start a war for control of Mideast oil (or to cause a shortage of oil and drive the price up to enrich his Texas oil industry buddies); that the conservatives on the Supreme Court conspired to halt the Florida recount and ensure Bush’s election, and that Bush purposely let Osama bin Laden escape to keep the war on terror going.

The problem with these conspiracies and their proliferation on the Internet is that it’s creating a generation of news consumers who have no way to know what’s true.

If people only believe what they agree with, they’re easy to mislead.

Which is how the legislators on Roberts’ Top 10 Kooks List got elected in the first place.

What to do about it?

Some sites on the Internet try to be arbiters of truth, Wikipedia and Snopes.com being the two biggest (although Snopes is more for debunking email forwards making claims about people putting HIV infected needles on theater seats and the like). But Wikipedia is crowd-sourced information and the administrators are in a constant war with the nuts to keep the conspiracies from insidiously infiltrating the site. The site is even the subject of it’s own conspiracy theory launched by conspiracists angrly about not getting their conspiracies included in the site.

There was a gathering of skeptics last week in Las Vegas called The Amazing Meeting, and the proliferation of crazy notions and theories on the Internet was a common theme of many of the conference’s sessions.

One of the conference speakers, Tim Farley, a computer application security analyst and research fellow for the James Randi Educational Foundation, proposed that the solution to the misinformation on the Internet is the Internet. He theorizes that rational people employing various ranking tools (some of which he designed) can give high ranks to credible sites and low ranks to incredible sites and thereby help other readers ferret out what’s true and what’s bunk.

But if you’re predisposed to believe bunk to be true, that won’t work.

The solution will remain elusive thanks to the nature of the freewheeling Internet. But for those readers who might be unsure about whether something they read on the Internet is true try following this advice: “If it sounds too stupid to be true, it probably isn’t.”

Then vote accordingly. That should help solve Roberts’ kook problem.

Are you predisposed to conspiracy theories? Take the test.

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