Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

The Social Media Problem

After seeing some of the weirdest stuff ever show up in my Twitter timeline I decided to dig in and see for myself what is going on in the underbelly of the beast. Someone I follow had just re-tweeted a bit of information that at face value seemed too outrageous to even consider and I wondered what made that happen. In short, the original tweet mentioned that COVID-19 is a hoax, that the virus isn’t real and that this whole pandemonium is just an excuse by ‘them’ to get us all under control if not to outright murder us using a vaccine.

Professionally I get paid to separate fact from fiction, to determine what is and what isn’t true in the statements a company makes, to figure out if that is intentional or accidental and to figure out ways to make them go forward faster. This is very much unlike debunking conspiracy theories, but there are some similarities and some of the tools that can be used for the one can be used for the other. Funny enough, that never was a requirement. The conspiracy stuff that people share amongst each other is so dumb and so weird that you have to be a little bit loose in the head to believe any of it.

And that - I realized belatedly - is exactly why it works. Social media has created a fabric where the gullible and the amok makers can reach ech other, totally free of friction. And there are a lot of gullible people out there. Scientology for instance, managed to create a foothold in almost every country where they wanted to operate simply by standing around on the street. No web, no social media, nothing. Just plain old conversational skills. And bit by bit they pull otherwise healthy and well thinking individuals into their web of lies and deception, in the meantime fleecing them of all their money.

My lead into the armpit of the internet did not come up with something quite that ugly, nobody that I saw ended up with fewer $ in their pocket than they had the day before. But what I did see is as damaging or even more so than if it had been an outright scam for cash. What is happening is that people are infecting each other with these false memes and by cliquing together they then re-inforce these beliefs as though they are unassailable truths. And they form mini cults protecting each other from outsiders that question these often absolutely ridiculous beliefs, which then reinforces the social structure and makes it even harder for them to snap out of it.

If this was limited to a few hundred people world wide I don’t think I’d even bother writing this. But there are millions of these gullible, ultimately well meaning people. They all have the vote, and they all feel that they and only they know what is true. The rest of us are deluded idiots. We are sleepwalking into our own slaughter and only they see the truth. In their world Bill Gates is Satan, out to ‘cull’ us all through the use of the COVID-19 vaccine which will put us out of our collective misery so the billionaires can inherit an empty Earth. I kid you not, I wished I was.

The internet has made it possible for every individual to communicate with every other individual. Facebook and Twitter have given users platforms that they can use to spread information far and wide, in seconds. The boring truth hasn’t even put on its shoes before the sexy complot theory has made it halfway around the world and back. 5G causes cancer, can be used for mind control and is a tool that ‘they’ use to spy on all of us. And like every good lie, there is a grain if truth in there. If you stick your head inside a powerful several GHz transmitter you won’t get healthier. Switching it on and off and it will probably be able to give you a headache. They can in fact be used to determine who was were and when with pretty good resolution. But the first two are simply dumb and the third we’ve been able to do since the first radio fox hunt, it’s called triangulation and is as old as radio. None of that stopped a bunch of people from setting cell phone towers on fire, potentially limiting access to emergency services.

One thing that interests me and that I have so far not been able to find out is how it starts. How does a ‘normal’ person step into this cult world where up is down and not think to themselves: “Hm, this does not seem like it is believable”. The mental virus of a complot theory has to take root somewhere. For instance, I know a guy that believes that 911 never happened. He says it is all CGI and a giant plot. But the kicker is: he is a CGI expert, he probably could make it look like it was real when it wasn’t. It’s just that he does not want to change his position any more because he has been so loud and obnoxious about it that a turn-about is impossible. He’s too vested in his little world of delusion to make a step back out. In his case I get it.

But a person who does PCR analysis and knows the ins and outs of PCR tests that maintains that there is no such thing as COVID-19 is on another level for me. That’s the kind of purposeful refusal of the world as it exists all around us that I can not get my head wrapped around. You’d think that qualifying for such a position would mean that you understand the subject matter enough to appreciate the predictive capability of a properly set up test. Ok, such a test will still have a substantial false positive rate. But it is super useful when there is corroborating evidence and also useful to spot trends.

So, where is this all leading: we have a sizeable fraction of planet Earth now communicating in near real time with the ability to spread both good and bad information. Filtering out the bad from the good is going to be very important if we don’t want to accidentally lose such minor marbles as our democracies, our health and our safety. The complot theory adherents are only going to sink further away in their own little quagmires, they are not interested in seeing their views challenged. And when you do be prepared to be called all kinds of names, in the space of a day I got called a paid pharma shill, a paid government shill, and a whole bunch of descriptions that don’t bear repeating here besides. You are not going to be able reason with stupid and/or crazy. But there are a lot of them and they all have the vote, waiting to be pushed as useful idiots to some higher goal. Politicians have started to realize that they don’t actually need to get a real mandate, and that they won’t be held accountable for lying. At that level, every time someone lies more people become susceptible to being pulled in to this web of deception.

As users of social media we could all make a difference by verifying if what is being said is real, but what’s obviously bullshit to one person may sound plausible to another, especially if they are gullible and the datum plays on their feelings in the right way. It would really help if both Facebook and Twitter would be far more pro-active in shutting down these fountains of nonsense. An quick way to report a Tweet or FB post that spreads disinformation would already help a lot. Twitter right now gives you a whole range of options but that one is - as far as I can see - not available, which is funny given that it is the only one that I would probably use with some frequency.

A change in efficiency is usually a quantitative affair. But several orders of magnitude change are a qualitative one. I do not recall an age when mobs could be created on a moments notice to spring up anywhere on the planet. I do not recall a Pizzagate a QAnon or something similar from before the age of social media. This is real, it is happening now and we are simply unprepared to deal with it. The fig leaf of Free Speech will no doubt be brandished as the greatest good and too sacred to be messed with but the facts are that every form of free speech has limitations. And that actively trying to harm others by abusing that right should come with some kind of limit or at a minimum a way to reduce its reach. Most of the reasoning around free speech rights and such are from a time when getting a letter across the country took three weeks. This risks institutionalizing things that are no longer as useful and innocent as they once upon a time were, the world has changed and there is a good chance that this will require adaptation rather than dogmatic adherence to our older customs.

Shutting down this vector of mental infection is important, I suspect that if we do not that our institutions may not survive the first Social Media Era. This is a powerful force that is brewing and we ignore it at our collective peril. As long as complot theories were spread on speakers corner only the damage was limited. Now the whole world is on their soapbox and all at once. Time to get of mine.