On Rumours, Conspiracy Theories and Facebook

I’m not fond of the term “Meme,’ mostly because any serious analysis of what it takes to be a meme and how they get transferred usually breaks down (there’s a reason why Dawkin’s stopped referring to memes and started talking about the extended phenotype), but if we accept that there are these ‘packets of information that spread virally,’ and they are referred to as “memes,” then the Internet is filled, almost to the point of bursting, with them.

There is, I think, a good paper to be written (hopefully by me) about the Internet and the transmission of Rumours. Such a paper would need to touch on memes (if only because a lot of rumours on the internet get referred to as memes and because people talk about information spread on the internet as viral)1.

One of my central theses in regards to Rumours is that they are a reliable; the way Rumours are transmitted in a community of speakers and hearers should give us pretty good grounds to say that the Rumour is likely to be true (the full story is much fleshed out and hopefully will see print pending the next set of revisions). However, my analysis somewhat relies on people doing some work to check out or verify the Rumours that they hear, and sometimes (perhaps often) it astounds me that this just doesn’t seem to happen2. Take the recent ‘meme’ about Facebook allowing third-party advertisers to use user pictures without explicit permission of the users themselves; I’ve seen several colleagues spread this rumour without bothering to do the one, easy step that every educated person should do; go to Snopes.com and check to see whether it is an urban legend (because it is)

Now, the fact that I did shows that the checks and balances of the Rumour transmission process occurs and hopefully my actions will not stop friends of mine from passing on the falsehood but will also make them more likely to check the status of the next Rumour they hear… Well, that’s what I hope, but ‘hope’ springs eternal and rarely ever quenches the thirst.

It’s tricky, I admit. If Rumours are reliable, as I argue, then people probably do have a prima facie reason to take them on trust, especially if they come from a trustworthy source, but, then again, the Facebook rumour asserts something quite… well, if not exactly incredible something that is fairly damning and should be unexpected; thus, because it is unexpected, people should think ‘Okay, my source might be good, its a Rumour so its likely to be true, but given how remarkable this claim is I should be a little sceptical of it and just go check Snopes.com.”

Which made me wonder why people didn’t. A simple answer would be that we expect this kind of behaviour from entities like Facebook, which is symptomatic, I think, of a kind of Conspiracism. We have this pre-existing belief that entities like Facebook, et al, are, despite protests to the contrary, up to no good. We believe that these entities are likely to be conspiring against us, and so rumours such like ‘Facebook is allowing advertisers to use our photos’ isn’t really all that unexpected or incredible at all; it fits with our other beliefs.

Now, there is a debate as to how rational that set of beliefs (about evil corporations and what they are up to) are, and that debate will inform the debate about when we should bother to check what our sources tell us. I was suspicious about the Facebook rumour so I checked it out; other people weren’t. Now it turns out that my suspicion was correct and the credulity expressed by others was not, but given that we are talking about reliable processes it may turn out that my suspicion was actually a bit malformed and perhaps I should have been credulous… Which is where it becomes all the more tricky and I decide to leave this to another time, a time, hopefully, that produces a conference paper or even a journal article.

Food for thought.

Notes

  1. Steve Clarke, in ‘Conspiracy Theorizing and the Internet’ has touched upon the way Conspiracy Theories are spread and a paper I have in circulation runs a comparison between Conspiracy Theories and Rumours, so intellectual profit can be made from all of this.
  2. Especially when its people I know and respect.

CCE – Conspiracy Theories and Critical Thinking

It is that time of year again, the time of year where I advertise my Conspiracy Theories course to the world. If you’re rushing to enrol, then go here. If you are more circumspect, well, I’m not sure I can help you, although I can tell you that this year I propose to:

    Cover both Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons,’ as well as discuss what travesties of writing and historical revision he might be planning in his upcoming book, ‘The Lost Symbol.’

    Expand on the Aoteroa/Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand) section by adding in the ‘Celtic New Zealand’ thesis as a subject of discussion.

    Talk even more about how Conspiracy Theories and Official Theories interrelate and how one can easily be the other.

    Introduce the material from my upcoming talk to the New Zealand Skeptics1 on Epistemically Authoritative Sources.

    And (probably) lots more.

Notes

  1. More on this later.